D/B grad earns Fulbright to study music in Poland

MARSHALL – Just a day before she graduated from Viterbo University, 2010 Dawson/Boyd graduate Sonja Larson learned she had received a prestigious Fulbright award.

Larson was awarded the scholarship to study in Krakow, Poland, from October through June 2015, studying the music of the Holocaust with University of Warsaw professor of musicology Katarzyna Naliwejek-Mazurek. She is presenting a vocal recital at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, at Memorial Auditorium in Dawson to help fund her research, along with a pilgrimage to Rwanda. She will perform Italian and Norwegian operatic arias, French art songs and “End of the Line,” a song set composed to poetry she wrote during her research abroad.

During the recital, Larson will also present her research, “Music in the Holocaust: A Means of Survival,” that she conducted while in Poland last summer. She will also share about her recent pilgrimage to Rwanda.

Larson said her interest in music probably started around the time she started walking as she started dancing to the radio. Her parents noticed the interest and enrolled her in once-a-week dance class when she was 4 years old. She continued that class throughout all of school and began piano lessons, joined orchestra, band and choir and took a special interest in voice lessons.

“I have always loved to sing, and my childhood dream was to become Faith Hill,” she said.

Her first love was country music, and she sang in choir and was cast in Dawson-Boyd High School musicals and competed at talent shows available in the community. In her last year of high school, Larson heard an opera singer at a Christian music festival with the local Christian youth choir, Agapes.

“My voice teacher Melanie Benson (also the director of that choir at the time) asked me what I thought of the opera singer and asked ‘Would you ever want to do that?’ Larson said. “It was the first time I really considered opera as a legitimate potential career, and it planted a seed that grew, and I decided to study vocal performance at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis. I came in quite clueless, but I learned a lot and grew to love it so much more as I studied it.”

What she loves about music is its profound transcendence.

“It can transcend differences between people otherwise impossible to bridge: separation because culture, age, time, beliefs, religion, language, geographic location, can be erased through music,” Larson said. “It’s the language of the soul; a composer a thousand miles away, 300 years dead who spoke a different language can communicate perfectly an experience with someone today of a completely different culture, religion, language, etc. through music. It’s incredible.”

Larson said she has previously done and continues to do research on music in the Holocaust, and she found that music played a significant role in prolonging or saving lives. She had researched the music of the Holocaust with a Viterbo University summer research fellowship in Poland.

“While living in Krakow last summer, I went to the 24th Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow and found a vibrant global community celebrating a culture of a people that was nearly destroyed in WWII,” Larson said. The population of Jews in Krakow pre-WWII was 600,000, she said, and now it’s estimated to be less than 1,000. “I found a young and growing Jewish community there, as well, and wondered, what role did music play in keeping this community together and culture alive? What can we learn from this community center and culture festival that can be applied to other genocide/violence-damaged communities around the world?” One of the goals of her trip to Rwanda is to make connections for a potential pilot community for this music-based building model, she said.

Initially, Larson wanted to find a way to get herself back to Europe, which was one of the reasons she applied for the Fulbright, she said.

“But through my study of the music of the Holocaust and through my application, my passion for this topic and my belief in its importance was definitely solidified,” she said. “I want to gather these stories before it’s too late, before the people with these stories are gone.”

Applying for the Fulbright was a long and stressful process, Larson said, and once she submitted her application in October 2013, she waited to hear anything until January.

“I was then informed that I had been recommended by the U.S. Fulbright Committee to the Polish Commission, where later I was granted an interview,” she said. “I waited until April to find out that I was declared an alternate, and that I could be offered still all the way to September.”

The night before her college graduation, Larson got an email informing her that she had been officially offered the Fulbright after more funding came through.

“I literally screamed out loud and tore to our on campus chapel to praise God for this amazing opportunity,” she said. “No one else was around, and I was dying to tell someone, and our Franciscan chaplain, who is Polish, was in the chapel. I have never seen him so happy in my life.”

Other goals Larson has while studying in Poland are getting involved in a little English-speaking church she found while studying in Poland last year, continue language courses, as well as pick up some Hebrew and Arabic classes from the Jewish Community Center.

“I will also be taking in all the world-class opera and ballet available at the Warsaw Opera House and will fully immerse myself in the rich culture of the Polish people,” she said.