Pianist’s find in Newman Library leads to New York debut

Treasures abound among the stacks in Virginia Tech’s Newman Library. Typically the resources there include rich nuggets for research papers or pithy material for dissertations. When Tracy Cowden first saw a 1911 copy of “Vegetable Verselets” in Special Collections, she had an idea. And that inspiration has paved the way to her New York debut as a pianist.

The poetry book, which Cowden discovered in October 2010, is dedicated to “all fun lovers.” It playfully describes the discussions and antics of various garden characters including the "Heart-Beets," a "Narcissus Cucumber," and a regiment of cornstalks.


Tracy Cowden Associate Professor of Piano Tracy Cowden frequently performs with an array of soloists and chamber ensembles.

“I thought the poems in ‘Vegetable Verselets’ were just begging to be set to music,” said Cowden, an associate professor of piano and vocal coach in the Department of Music. And so began Cowden’s quest to commission a song cycle.

Armed with a College of Liberal Arts and Humans Sciences Jerome Niles research award, Cowden persuaded internationally renowned composer Daron Hagen to write the music.

“All seven of Mr. Hagen’s operas are being featured in current productions around the world. That cannot be said about many living composers,” Cowden said. Indeed, according to the New York Times, Hagen has a “gift for the big, sweeping tune” and his list of commissioners includes the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the National Symphony.

Hagen said he agreed to set the poems to music “because Tracy made a keen judgment call. Sometimes poetry that seems superficially trivial can make for really, really good song. I found the verses entirely charming and disarming.”

He finished writing the songs during summer 2011 and sent Cowden the completed music that September.

To perform the vocals, Cowden secured another celebrated artist. Caroline Worra is a vibrant soprano who performs at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Worra will sing to Cowden’s piano accompaniment in the world premiere of the series at Virginia Tech in spring 2012.

An active musician

“I am very fortunate to be involved in this project with them,” said a modest Cowden. But it is her own musical abilities that attracted such high-caliber cohorts, Hagen said. Cowden performs with a diverse array of soloists and chamber ensembles, including Worra, tenor Paul Sperry, oboist Joseph Robinson formerly of the New York Philharmonic, and fellow members of the Wintergreen Chamber Players at the Wintergreen (Va.) Summer Music Festival.

“I accepted Tracy's commission because of the immense admiration I have for her playing, both as a chamber musician and as a collaborative pianist with singers,” Hagen said. “I heard her accompany Ms. Worra at the Wintergreen Festival two years ago and loved their performance.”

Cowden has recorded five new works for trumpet and piano with colleague John Adler on a CD entitled “Confronting Inertia,” which was released by Origin Classical in October 2009. She has performed with the Cavani Quartet, the Audubon Quartet, the Carpe Diem String Quartet, and the Marble Cliff Chamber Players, and in recitals with principal musicians from the Montreal, Vancouver, Boston, and Columbus symphony orchestras. She has also appeared as soloist with the Roanoke (Va.) Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Southwest Virginia, the Central Ohio Symphony Orchestra, and the Virginia Tech Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

“Vegetable Verselets”

Virginia Tech’s copy of “Vegetable Verselets” is one of six available in libraries around the world.

Written by Margaret Hays and illustrated by her sister, Grace Wiedersein, the book is a small, hardbound volume with lots of colorful illustrations. Hays is as appealing as her characters as she also wrote Campbell’s Soup jingles for streetcars and designed toy books for E.P. Dutton.


Kira Dietz, Newman Library's acquisitions and processing archivist, sits with Tracy Cowden. Kira Dietz, Newman Library's acquisitions and processing archivist, sits with Tracy Cowden.

The book first caught the eye of the library’s acquisitions and processing archivist, Kira Dietz, in an auction catalog. She hoped to purchase several items for the culinary collection at the Virginia Tech Libraries, but “Vegetable Verselets” was the only item won that day.

When the book arrived at the library, Dietz used it in a display that caught Cowden’s attention.

The Virginia Tech Libraries has a large culinary collection of items from the Peacock-Harper Culinary Collection, the Ann Hertzler Children’s Cookbook and Nutrition Literature Archive, and more than 3,000 other items that help chronicle the history of cooking and food.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Jean Elliott at 540-231-5915.

Multimedia: Tracy Cowden

    Vegetable Verselets

Watch a video of Cowden reading and performing

Another special concert

    The group performs on stage.

The Virginia Tech Symphonic Wind Ensemble performed in April 2011 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

This was the first appearance by an ensemble from the Virginia Tech Department of Music at the Kennedy Center, which opened in 1971.

The ensemble, conducted by Assistant Professor of Music Travis J. Cross, gave a 45-minute performance in the Concert Hall as part of the Washington, D.C., International Music Festival sponsored by World Projects.

Video: Strings Project

    students playing string instruments

Learn about the Virginia Tech Strings Project, an outreach initiative.

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