MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Innovative Premiere by Music of Remembrance

img1975-copy

Mary Kouyoumdjian, composer. Photo credit: Dominica Eriksen

Last night’s Spring Concert presented by Music of Remembrance (MOR) featured the world premiere of an extraordinary collaboration: to open myself, to scream, a portrait piece inspired by the Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka (1933-2013), with music by Mary Kouyoumdjian and visual design by Kevork Mourad.

The entire concert, titled Ceija, and presented at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall,  was dedicated to the legacy of this Roma artist, writer, and musician who survived three concentration camps — though many members from her extended family did not.

Born to Catholic parents, Stojka traveled during summers with her Roma family across the Austrian countryside as a child — the family business involved horse trading — while they wintered in Vienna.

Only 12 by war’s end, Ceija Stojka took decades before she could even begin processing these traumatic memories through her painting and writing. (She was 55 when she began painting.) But she gained a following, also publishing a trio of autobiographies that broke ground in addressing the issue of the Nazi genocide of the Roma people — whose persecution hardly ended with the war. Vienna named a square inStojka’s honor following her death in 2013.

Kouyoumdjian is a young Brooklyn-based composer who has been commissioned by such distinguished ensembles as the Kronos Quartet.  In previous works she has addressed experiences of the Armenian genocide and the chaos of war, which directly affected her family.

This commission is very much in keeping with MOR’s commitment, in the words of founder and artistic director Mina Miller, to remind us of “the Holocaust’s urgent lessons for today, and of the need for vigilance and action in the face of threats to human rights everywhere.” MOR friends Marcus and Pat Meier, longstanding advocates for and collectors of Stojka’s art, had brought the artist’s story to Miller’s attention and sponsored the new commission.

Kouyoumdjian took her title from a speech Stojka gave in 2004 for the opening of a retrospective at Vienna’s Jewish Museum: “I reached for the pen because I had to open myself, to scream.”

Each of the four movements of to open myself, to scream is also titled after quotes from the artist. Kouyoumdjian says that she was drawn to Stojka’s “themes of longing for the past and coping with the aftermath of unimaginable trauma,” adding, “I hope to continue the conversation about how we sympathize with those who experience the unimaginable, and how we can pull from the past to move forward.”

That’s a tall order for any work, but Kouyoumdjian succeeds brilliantly in drawing us sympathetically into Stojka’s world. She makes us sense precisely these themes of longing and coping through art. What’s more, she does this without sentimental manipulation or a false glaze promising aesthetic redemption.

to open myself, to scream creates a bold, innovative soundspace using techniques of layering and multiple forms of dialogue among its unusual chamber configuration of clarinet, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass (all played by Seattle Symphony musicians).

The most overt musical dialogue is between present and past. The players interact with an electronic soundtrack that samples and processes material they had previously recorded;  Kouyoumdjian also recorded vocal samples representing Stojka’s memories of her mother comforting her (she was in the camps with her daughter) — but these are filtered and distanced, so that the comfort offered always seems just beyond the horizon.

Overall, the effect is of a labyrinthine internal dialogue, a dialogue poised restlessly between contradictory impulses. The narrative framework implies a desire to revisit happy memories of childhood (evident particularly in folk-flavored idioms), which are accompanied and superseded by the trauma to which these are inevitably linked. Kouyoumdjian’s continually transforming soundscape conveys this harrowed consciousness, whose very sensitivity enhances the pain of memory.

Another significant dialogue is the one between music and visuals. The latter, working with the whole spectrum of Stojka’s paintings and ink sketches, were designed by Syrian-Armenian artist Kevork Mourad (a multi-media master who has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project among many others).

Projected onto a large screen behind the players, the paintings are animated into a filmic accompaniment to the score (rather than the conventional order of the reverse). Mourad’s remarkable animations underscore the music’s sense of memories and images being unrelentingly processed. In turn they establish their own varieties of dialogue and interchange: between figuration and abstraction, saturated colors and somber black-and-white, recognizability and ambiguity.

Particular figures are seen moving into or receding from the foreground. At times the “action” creates an illusion of the paintings trying to breathe, which anticipates one of Kouyoumdjian’s most startling gestures, at the end of her score. In conjunction, music and visuals reinforce the feeling of a struggle between the past and “moving forward.” A kind of anxious pedal point grounds many of the musical gestures, even at their most frenzied, until the piece ultimately builds to an overwhelming, unresolved climax.

What’s especially innovative here is the sense of emotional pulse Kouyoumdjian establishes: never linear or straightforward but always in motion, acting and reacting. The last movement is titled after one of Stojka’s most unforgettable statements: “Auschwitz is only sleeping. If the world does not change now … then I cannot explain why I survived …”

MOR’s program also presented the world premiere of new choreography by Olivier Wevers, artistic director o Seattle’s Whim W’Him company. The music was from Osvaldo Golijov’s score to the 2000 film The Man Who Cried, which depicts the story of a Roma man and his lover, a young Jewish woman, in Nazi-occupied Paris.

Featuring dancers Liane Aung and Karl Watson, Wevers’ choreography emphasized the passionate urgency of the lovers’ bond, their individuality facing powerful destructive forces. The sextet of SSO musicians gave a poetically touching account of Golijov’s music, with its blend of klezmer and Roma-folk elements.

The program also included a number of works by composers who either fled or fell victim to the Nazis. SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt and pianist Jessica Choe offered a bit of needed relief between the emotionally gripping premieres: a dazzling performance of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1949 Rhapsody on Moldavian themes, populist and wildly mercurial.

The first, relatively lighter half of the program included a nostalgic reverie of old Vienna in Karl Weigle’s Revelation for string quintet and Hans Gál’s Schubert-inflected Variations on a Viennese Melody, a youthful work from 1914.

Vocal music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who fled Europe to become a legendary Hollywood composer, filled out the rest of the program.  Catherine Cook‘s lush, resonant mezzo soprano was perfectly tailored to the arrangement (for piano quintet) of “Mariettas Lied” from Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt.

While Hitler was in power, Korngold refused to write concert music or opera and turned to film music. One near-casualty of his career after fleeing the Nazis was a series of songs set to Shakespeare texts, some of which were lost when the family estate was confiscated; fortunately the composer was able to recreate them from memory in his new home in Los Angeles. With Mina Miller at the keyboard, Cook sang four of these, including Korngold’s folk-simple but piquant version of Desdemona’s “Willow Song.”

On May 24 MOR will perform Kouyoumdjian’s to open myself, to scream at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The rest of the program will include music by Hans Krása, Betty Olivero, and Lori Laitman.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved. 

 

 

 

Filed under: American music, commissions, Music of Remembrance, review

Stirring Season Finale from Seattle Pro Musica

seattlepromusica-fullchoirIn literature, it may be true that happy families are all alike, but Tolstoy’s principle doesn’t really apply to music.

Composers know no limits when it comes to expressing conditions we aspire to — whether happiness, love, or peace and reconciliation. Far from being bland and samey, every harmony — metaphorical and literal — is, to tweak Tolstoy, harmonious in its own way.

That was one of the many strong impressions left by last night’s performance at St. James Cathedral by Seattle Pro Musica (SPM). The program, titled dona nobis pacem, brings SPM’s highly rewarding season to its close with a characteristically bold and stirring send-off (repeat performance tonight, May 20). Its themes of war and peace — timed just ahead of Memorial Day — feel as urgent as ever.

Artistic Director Karen P. Thomas structured the program around Ralph Vaughan Williams’ choral-symphonic masterpiece of the same name, which filled out the second half. The first half comprised a fascinating variety of pieces also centered around the yearning for peace and solace, as well as the grief caused by war and violence. “It is when these themes are addressed that the unmistakable power of music is often mostly keenly felt,” writes Thomas “–to give voice to emotions which are beyond words … and to lift up the human spirit with visions of a better world and a nobler humanity.”

The concert additionally offered a deeply satisfying “status report” on the state of SPM itself — in glowing, radiant health — while displaying its unique strengths across the vocal spectrum. Thus Thomas launched the program with the subchoir Orpheon (the men’s voices) in a rarely heard choral work by Nikolai Golovanov from just before the Bolshevik Revolution. Setting a part of the Orthodox liturgy of St. John Chrysostom — and one of the last surviving compositions of a sacred music tradition that the Soviets sought to wipe out — Mercy of Peace established a mood of supernal calm with exquisitely tapered dynamics.

Next up was the all-women’s Chroma section in a piece SPM commissioned in 2007 from American composer John Muehleisen: Da Pacem, which subtly weaves in references to motets by J.S. Bach. Chroma followed their impassioned  account with the ancient plainchant melody Muehleisen used as a basis.

The next subchoir, Vox (mixed voices), turned to the English composer Herbert Howells, familiar in choral circles mostly for his Anglican sacred music. Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, setting a text by the 4th-century Roman Christian poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, is a profoundly poignant composition from 1964 dedicated to the memory of the slain J.F. Kennedy (programmed to mark the centenary of JFK’s birth this month). The sense of unforced flow and long-range breathing Thomas commanded from her singers was a textbook example of effective choral phrasing.

Another delight of SPM’s programs is the seamless “staging” of the program’s order. While Chroma sang the mesmerizing canonical repetitions of another Da Pacem chant setting (by the German Renaissance-to-Baroque composer and theorist Johann Christoph Demantius), the full SPM ensemble discreetly gathered to join in for the remainder of the program’s first half.

The beginning words of the traditional Latin Requiem Mass inspired American composer and scholar Peter Winkler to write his musical response to 9/11 for a cappella choir, making powerful use of anguished silences and unexpected breaks in the voices to highlight the sense of desperation.

Thomas’s rich program included several other musical discoveries, such as Canadian composer Eleanor Daley’s 1998 setting of parts of For the Fallen, a poem by Laurence Binyon associated with England’s grieving for its loss at the beginning of World War One. Zachary Lyman’s trumpet offered a touching counterpart to the simple, heartfelt piece.

All season Thomas and SPM have been participating in a season-long celebration of the legacy of the late Bernard Herbolsheimer (who died in January 2016). And what a compelling piece they chose for this program: …for they shall… unfolds as a remarkable harmonic “battle” between the instruments (trumpets and timpani) and the choir, with the former playing martial and aggressive, almost chaotic, passages in strikingly different keys from the singers’ placid recitation of the Beatitudes — two worlds of violently contrasting sound that eventually align on the same key for a brief moment of hope, which is soon undercut by the menace of the timpani.

The Herbolsheimer also served to foreshadow the culminating Vaughan Williams. Ending the first half was another breath of respite in the famous Nunc dimittis from 1915 by Vaughan Williams’ friend Gustav Holst. Thomas paced the music beautifully, making the luminous climax of the work, written for eight-part choir, a destination not just reached but earned.

For the Vaughan Williams, SPM pulled out all the stops, glorying in the powerful emotions, contrasts, and colorful sound worlds of a full-blown symphonic-choral score. It’s not often we get to hear them perform on this scale — and the results were nothing short of thrilling.

dona nobis pacem is a visionary cantata created during a period of worldwide political fear and dread. Vaughan Williams wrote it in 1936, before “the clever hopes … of a low dishonest decade” had expired, to borrow Auden’s phrase. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain continued to stoke false hopes of appeasement, and Vaughan Williams’ cantata grew increasingly into a warning — another case of art lighting the way unheeded.

The concept behind the work is also advanced and would point the way to a later masterpiece of 20th-century English choral music: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral (bombed in World War Two).

Agnostic (or atheist) that he was, Vaughan Williams is responsible for some of the most beautiful “sacred” music of the last century, including the 1921 Mass in G minor (reflecting his own experiences on the French battlefields in the Great War). dona nobis pacem isn’t a liturgical work by any means, but it exudes a Requiem’s sense of grappling with loss, of coming to terms with grief.

For his text, the composer combined some Biblical texts with poetry by his beloved Walt Whitman (the inspiration for his much earlier A Sea Symphony as well) and a brief speech excerpt from a British politician warning against Britain’s involvement in the 19th-century Crimean War.

The singers were joined by a full orchestral ensemble for the c. 40-minute composition, which began with soprano Tess Altiveros’ moving solo plea for peace (from the Agnus Dei) — a universal plea that soon segued into the concrete terrors catalogued in Whitman’s Beat! Beat! Drums!

Especially in Vaughan Williams’ brass-and-percussion-heavy musical guise — with a few nods to Verdi’s Requiem — the poem’s depiction of “terrible drums” and “bugles” interrupting the peaceable life became a Civil War Dies Irae. (Never mind that a certain U.S. President recently proved to be clueless even as to the basic facts of a war that so profoundly shaped the nation passed down to us.)

Thomas obviously regards this score as a masterwork and had rehearsed the assembled forces in great detail. She also displayed a magnificent theatrical sensibility in the pacing and unfolding of these complex emotions. (I’d be eager to have a chance to hear her conduct for the stage.) The transitions between movements were notably effective, as was the immersive brass climax after “the strong dead-march enwraps me” (in the fourth movement, “Dirge for Two Veterans”).

Baritone solo Matthew Hayward sang with gripping emotion in the third movement (“Reconciliation”), which comes closest to the intimate intensity of Britten’s later War Requiem. Given the challenges of the Cathedral acoustics for combined forces of this size, Thomas judged balances well, allowing for maximum impact at the moment when all hell truly does break loose in the apocalyptic “The Angel of Death.”

From there to the solo soprano’s return at the end — again pleading, imploring for the seemingly unreachable peace — is the endless cycle of humanity’s struggle. But however familiar the pattern, this rousing performance engaged the listener in the urgency of the message, and the vision, in this our time.

One more performance, tonight at 8:00 pm, at St. James Cathedral. Information here.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

 

Filed under: choral music, review, Seattle Pro Musica

Music of Remembrance’s Latest Program Is Also Music of Our Time

artwork-ceija-stojka-courtesy-marcus-meier_0

Stojka, Ceija. “Hiding”. Courtesy of Pat and Marcus Meier

My story for The Seattle Times on Music of Remembrance’s latest commission (details on the concert here):

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s to open myself, to scream, inspired by Roma artist and Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka, is at the center of MOR’s May 21 program. “Our mission is to speak out for oppressed people,” says MOR founder Mina Miller.

continue reading

Filed under: commissions, Music of Remembrance, new music, Seattle Times

Lou Harrison’s 100th

May 14 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lou Harrison. NPR’s Tom Huizenga has this lovely appreciation:

The composer’s motto was “Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create.” He was a published poet, a painter and a calligrapher, and was openly gay back in the 1930s. […]

Harrison was fond of saying, “Enjoy hybrid music, because that’s all there is.”

“He knew that all music actually comes from other musics and combinations,” [biographer Brett] Campbell says. “There’s no such thing as a pure music.”

And from Brett Campbell himself, at Oregon Arts Watch:

Since Harrison’s death, his music is played somewhere every day, often in dance works, several choreographed by his great friend and colleague Mark Morris. It’s a colorful story, told in Eva Soltes’s film Lou Harrison: A World of Music, and in the new biography I co-authored with Bill Alves, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick— and it all began here.

Harrison’s legacy extends into this century: his work with Asian musical forms and instruments and his exploration of new tuning systems opened a whole new world of possibilities to modern music, allowing composers to take resources from various cultures and use them to make new music.

 

 

Filed under: American music, anniversary, Lou Harrison

Vijay Iyer’s Creative Connections

My feature for the Cal Performances/Ojai at Berkeley edition is now online:

Any portrait of Vijay Iyer is necessarily a group portrait. A composer, pianist, bandleader, teacher, and thinker, Iyer channels his insatiable curiosity into innovative acts of collaboration with like-minded artists—across genres and disciplines. So when the chance came to serve as music director of the 2017 Ojai Music Festival …

continue reading

Filed under: festivals, George Lewis, Ojai Festival, Vijay Iyer

A Visit with Composer Jennifer Higdon

Higdon-ComposingMy story on Jennifer Higdon is now out in the current issue of Strings magazine:

Jennifer Higdon is not only stunningly prolific but one of the most-performed American composers at work today. Her style offers an appealing balance of the accessible and the imaginative, and it attracts top-flight soloists, orchestras, and chamber ensembles—like Trio Solisti, which just premiered the composer’s Second Piano Trio, Color Through. Higdon, who turns 55 in December, also contributes to musical life through her teaching and residencies at such institutions as the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where she is currently the Barr Institute Laureate…

continue reading

Filed under: American music, feature, Jennifer Higdon, Strings

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR