Jan. 4-5, Gorge Sinfonietta performs work of ‘emotional and physical recovery’

Sam Baker knows about being broken, and the power of music to help heal. The Austin, Texas, singer/songwriter was the victim of a terrorist bombing in 1986 that killed seven, including families and children, according to a press release from Columbia Gorge Orchestra Association, which is hosting a Gorge Sinfonietta concert featuring “Go In Peace: The Mercy Symphony” by Baker on Jan. 4-5.

In addition to brain damage and complete hearing loss, the bombing shattered Baker’s hands and, over the course of 17 reconstructive surgeries, he began to recover. Baker had to relearn speech and to play the guitar left handed and, to this day, is deaf in one ear and suffers from tinnitus.

As Baker recounts in interviews with NPR’s Terry Gross and for a CGOA podcast, he used music and songwriting to work through the healing process as well, transforming the terrorist bombing that shattered his body into poignant lyrics and simple, powerful songs that turn the act of survival into inspiring and relatable messages. In songs like “Mercy,” “Steel,” and “Broken Fingers” Baker writes of his own struggles with physical and emotional recovery and creates characters that are flawed, lonely or searching for truth. His lyrics are filled with detail and his music echoes the hymn-like songs he heard in rural Texas as a youth. Baker has been compared to American musical icons like John Prine and Bob Dylan.

“Go in Peace: The Mercy Symphony” brings Baker to the Gorge for only the second time, but pairs the singer/songwriter with a full orchestra for the first time in his career, performing over 20 songs with the Gorge Sinfonietta in an evening- long, biographical exploration of struggle and transcendence.

Starting as a celebration of the 15th anniversary of his first album, “Mercy,” Baker and CGOA Artistic Director and Conductor Mark Steighner collaborated to expand the concept into something much more complex and affecting, said a press release. Over the course of several months, Steighner took Baker’s songs and weaved orchestral colors around them as Baker shaped the concert into a narrative form.

Baker describes the concert as a narrative, not just of his life, but that of everyone. “It is a Holy Grail story,” Baker said. “Because we’re all searching for beauty and transcendence.”

Baker says that he is particularly excited to work with the Sinfonietta and its many talented musicians.

“I love collaborating with musicians, because everyone brings their own power to the concert and the results are so special.”

Baker hopes that this first concert with an orchestra is just the beginning of a series and will seek to recreate the evening with other ensembles.

Steighner said that writing the arrangements has been a daunting but rewarding task. “I’ve written around 80 minutes of music,” Steighner said, “but the biggest challenge is arranging the songs in a way that underscores Sam’s essentially simple and very beautiful playing without getting in the way, while making the music interesting for the performers as well.”

In addition to being a musician, Baker is an accomplished painter, exhibiting at several shows in the southwest. His painting will be featured on the concert poster and he will sign copies for sale at the performances. Baker says that songwriting and painting are of near equal importance to him and when he has an idea he thinks about which medium would best express it, music or art.

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