MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Innovative Premiere by Music of Remembrance

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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

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

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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.

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

After Life: Music of Remembrance Premieres New Opera

Robert Orth (Picasso) and Catherine Cook (Gertrude Stein); (c) Michael Beaton

Robert Orth (Picasso) and Catherine Cook (Gertrude Stein); (c) Michael Beaton

Just posted on Bachtrack, my latest review is of the world premiere of After Life by Seattle’s Music of Remembrance:

“Questions remember me,” sings the unnamed girl in After Life, the one-act opera by composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason that received its world première on Monday evening in Seattle. Rounded up by the Nazis and sent from her orphanage in a French village to a concentration camp, the girl sings to us from the ‘other side’, the voice of a life stolen by the Holocaust. She knows she has been forgotten – yet the girl’s poignant questions make her presence indelible as she encounters the spirits of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso in the afterlife: two famous figures who survived the war while also living in France.

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Filed under: Holocaust, Music of Remembrance, new opera, review

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