By Philippa Kiraly, Special to The Sybaritic Singer
Now starting its 22nd season, Music of Remembrance has broadened its mission to include the brutal effects of intolerance everywhere, not only those of the Holocaust, although that remains a central part of what it does.
Sunday’s concert at Nordstrom Recital Hall included two commissions by the organizations: Veritas, by Shinji Eshima with sculpture by Al Farrow in a media design by Kate Duhamel; and Passage by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
The first is a devastating indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. Eshima chose to base his work on Bach’s Cello Suite no 2 in D minor, normally for an unaccompanied instrument, but here with double bass contributing harmony, the two instruments played respectively by Seattle Symphony members Walter Gray and Jonathan Green. With it were screen images of sculptor Farrow’s Vandalized Doors, shocking in their portrayal of not only doors but whole buildings—mosques, synagogues and churches, built of bullets, rifles, shell casings and other detritus of war, along with scarlet painted swastikas. The impact was devastating, the more so as the shape of a bullet is similar to that of the perpendicular church stonework of the Renaissance. The striking contrast between the images and the sorrowful, steady music left a deep resonance.
The music and narration of Passage involved extended slow quiet notes on the part of a string quartet (violinists Mikhail Shmidt and Takumi Taguchi, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi and cellist Gray) accompanying the muted voice of a speaker telling a story told to the composer by a young Egyptian refugee, describing the murder and horrors of the Arab Spring of a decade or so ago, much of it of a close personal nature to the young man. A brief video of the composer telling his reasons for bearing witness in the way he knew how, by writing music, came first.
However, as was mentioned in the spoken introduction, the narrator, here actor Jose Rubio, was required to speak in a muted voice, and it was so muted that much of the narration was inaudible to large numbers of the audience, so that a crucial part of the work was just a gap. Snippets of phrases came through, but not enough for context or sense of the whole so that much of the work lost its meaning. It would be well worth hearing this again, with the words better projected to the audience.
The performance began with Simon Sargon’s evocative Before the Ark, a brief prayer in music for violin and piano. Slow, calming, centering, it uses a middle Eastern scale, the violin muted at first, gentle and gradually becoming fiercer and louder, performed with insight by Taguchi and Mina Miller, founder of MoR.
Lastly, a contrast to all that had gone on earlier, came a reprise of Paul Schoenfield’s Camp Songs, an early commission by MoR. Schoenfield set some of the sardonic, ironic, sarcastic, angry poems written by poet Aleksander Kulisiewicz during his years of incarceration in the Nazi’s Sachsenhausen camp and based some of them on Kulisiewsicz’ own melodies. For two singers, both excellent, soprano Karen Early Evans and baritone Erich Parce, and a quintet of violin (Shmidt), clarinet (Laura DeLuca), cello (Gray) double bass (Green) and piano (Jessica Choe), this time the five songs were performed in translation to English by Katarzyna Jerzak and realized in a highly effective dramatization by Parce with Schoenfield’s effective music, including harsh screams from the clarinet and sudden chords from the piano.
Watching the two singers acting out the role of prisoners, jailers, Nazis and Death, with video of the camp on screen above made it all the more vivid.
As always, any MoR performance leaves audience members with a profound sense of memory, loss and unease, with much to mull over and think about. Miller is a superb designer of these programs, much of it due to her own passion to bear witness and how much she cares about it.
Philippa Kiraly has writing classical music criticism since 1980, for several newspapers in northern Ohio and Seattle, magazines, both local and national, and blogs. She is passionate about the importance of independent criticism for the fine arts, an art in itself which is dying with little interest by many publications and no longer a viable career for most. But writing for tickets is always worthwhile!
Pippa is a keen gardener, a keen grandparent, and can get lost in a good book.