Music That Matters from MOR: Responding to Intolerance

Publication
Memeteria by Thomas May
Publication Date

Music of Remembrance (MOR) opened its 22nd season yesterday afternoon at Nordstrom Recital Hall with a characteristically challenging program that included two world premieres.

MOR’s mission to remember the Holocaust through music is by no means limited to a focus on the past. Founded by artistic director and pianist Mina Miller, MOR has actually proved to be ahead of its time in grappling with issues of social justice and persecution.

Commissions in recent years have become, alarmingly, more and more topical. Confronting intolerance and its destructive consequences remains an urgent struggle in our troubled era, when anti-Semitism is on the rise, targeting of refugees and immigrants is condoned by those in power, and the tools of social media amplify the same hate- and fear-fueled ideologies that motivated the Nazis.

In 2017, MOR premiered Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s Snow Falls for violin, piano, and narrator, a work that addresses the horror of nuclear war — inspired by MOR’s Voices of Witness project that has confronted the experience of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Sunday’s concert presented MOR’s second Sakamoto commission: Passage, scored for string quartet and narrator.

Though brief, this single-movement piece seems to cover a vast emotional landscape. It unfolds as an elliptical drama, a miniature epic recounting one person’s ordeal as he was forced to flee his native Egypt and find refuge in Germany.

The composer/actor/producer/peace activitist Sakamoto, who was not present but shared his thoughts via a pre-recorded video, explained that he had befriended a young Egyptian, Kareem Lofty, on Facebook and wanted to commemorate this man’s experiences during the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Lofty’s words formed the text read by narrator José Rubio to the accompaniment of a string quartet.

Comprising the quartet, Mikhail Shmidt, Takumi Taguchi, Susan Gulkis Assad, and Walter Gray gave a performance that was all the more moving for its understated anguish. Beginning as a duet for cello and viola, the quartet proceeded in a kind of suspended time. Harmonies that were plaintive in their simplicity — and reminiscent of the Heiliger Dankgesangand its ancient mode in Beethoven’s Op. 132 — started and stopped, as if pausing to catch a breath.

At first I wondered whether Rubio’s voice wasn’t sufficiently amplified. But I then realized that his soft-spoken delivery was perfectly suited to Sakamoto’s musical vision. It added a subtle tension, compelling even greater focus and concentration on the horrors witnessed by Lofty as well as on the ennui of daily life as a refugee.

The other new commission was Veritas (i.e., “Truth”), a mixed-media piece by Shinji Eshima, a composer and double bassist from the Bay Area. Veritas expands on an earlier piece, in which Shinji fashioned a duet for cello and double bass from J.S. Bach’s Second Suite in D minor for solo cello, with a visual dimension.

Kate Duhamel‘s video displaying images from the American sculptor Al Farrow‘s Vandalized Doors series was projected as Walter Gray and Jonathan Green played the multi-movement Suite, famously characterized by Pablo Casals as “tragic.” (His tags for each of the other Suites (Nos. 1 and 3-6) were, respectively: “optimistic,” “heroic,” “grandiose,” “tempestuous,” and “bucolic.”) The musical idea seemed to be to embody, in another instrument, one of the (many) other voices implied by Bach’s illusionistic polyphony — to “liberate” and amplify it.

But it wasn’t until around the middle of the piece that Eshima’s additional double bass voice really opened up a new perspective on Bach’s score for me, when it seemed to start following an “alternative” path. The two musicians’ doubling of the flowing line of the final Gigue was a virtuosic tour de force.

The Farrow images, on the other hand, were mesmerizing, haunting, and disturbing all at once. Farrow used weapons and munitions — some more easily recognizable than others, like bullets and machine guns — to construct giant doors to a mosque, a church, and a synagogue. Some of the images included defacements of the sacred spaces, such as a spray-painted swastika — candid images of intolerance all too commonplace even today. Eshima was quoted in the program as viewing Farrow to be “the Picasso of our time,” noting: “He creates visual Truth out of guns and bullets without making any judgments. Experiencing his art allows one to discover one’s own Truth.”

A duet for violin and piano by the Dallas-based, Indian-Israeli composer Simon Sargon opened the program: the mystical musical prayer Before the Ark, with Mina Miller accompanying Takumi Taguchi from the keyboard. The violinist drew silky, muted tones from his instrument to frame the piece with a reverential aura.

Concluding the concert was the cycle Camp Songs by Paul Schoenfield — an earlier MOR commission from 2001 that was a finalist for the Music PulitzerCamp Songs has had an impressive afterlife since MOR premiered it in 2002.

Written for a chamber ensemble (Mikhail Shmidt, violin; Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Walter Gray, cello; Jonathan Green, double bass; and Jessica Choe, piano) and two singers, the cycle was here presented for the first time in a new staging conceived and directed by Erich Parce (who also directed memorable productions of MOR’s two commissions from Tom Cipullo, Afterlife and last spring’s The Parting). Parce himself performed the baritone role, joined by soprano Karen Early Evans.

Schoenfield built Camp Songs from music and poetry by the Polish journalist Aleksander Kulisiewicz (1918-1982), who was incarcerated for nearly six years in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. Making music with fellow prisoners was his means of resistance — and at the same time served to record and document the unbelievable atrocities that were now part of everyday life. “In the camp, I tried to create verses that would serve as
direct poetical reportage. I used my memory as a living
archive. Friends came to me and dictated their songs,” Kulisiewicz later recalled. The Kulisiewicz Collection can now be found in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Camp Songs comprises five of these texts, whose tone of bitter, hard-edged satire is evident from the opening depiction of a kapo, “Black Boehm,” who sings enthusiastically of his position as a crematorium worker. Parce’s stark staging amplified the grim litany of beatings, humiliations, and cruelty. The chamber ensemble’s impassioned playing ratcheted the irony to an almost unbearable level.

Review (c) 2019 Thomas May. All rights reserved