By Deborah Atherton
Last Saturday, one of the hottest tickets in Manhattan was for a concert presented by the contemporary chamber music group Ensemble Pi at the cell, a diminutive theater on 23rd Street that did not have room for the people lined up outside the door. The lights had only gone on downtown a week ago, and the gasoline shortage has emptied the streets of cars. But people were lined up in Chelsea to hear an interstitial presentation of some diverse works of art, all of which had an element of contemporary chamber music. Within an hour, we were treated to a beautiful piano/violin duo, a poem read in German but projected in English, sketches for an opera with an ensemble that included accordion and Apple laptop, and a moving puppet show.
The theme which united these elements, which could have been disparate but instead worked across genre boundaries and were enormously moving together, was What Must Be Said, taken from a recent poem by Nobel laureate Gunter Grass about the issue of nuclear power in Iran and Israel which sparked controversy all over the world. The concert was the seventh Annual Peace Project concert offered by Ensemble Pi, which “hopes to offer a dialog between music and ideas on the great issues of the day” (last year’s concert was on the environment.) Although the theme and ideas were serious, and the emotions evoked were sometimes profound, the presentation was inspired and often fun.
The first piece offered, Lament: The Fallen City by composer Susan Botti, was a duo for piano and violin. The powerful and passionate performances of violinist Airi Yoshioki and Idith Meshulam in this piece, which used the fall of the city of Troy as a metaphor for “modern cities that have experienced human-made or natural disaster,” had more than one audience member in tears. The emotional movement of the piece reminded me a little of the unfolding of The Trojan Women. The violin felt like a human voice, at first furious, enraged, and inconsolable, then through reflective interactions with the piano, came to a kind of reconciliation and understanding. For an audience which had been through its own natural disaster in the last week, it resonated deeply.
We moved next to a reading of excerpts of Gunter Grass’ poem, What Must Be Said, which was read in German by Kai Moser, and projected in English on a screen. This is often done for opera in performance, and as it turns out, works really well for poetry as well. Idith Meshulam spoke a little first about the meaning of Günter Grass’ poem and his courage as an artist, who revealed, at the age of 85, after a distinguished writing career, that as a youth he had been part of the Nazi army. A few years later, he followed that revelation with this anguished poem, which questions whether Israel, and not just Iran, has become a nuclear power, saying what he felt must be said. As Ms. Meshulam pointed out, whether or not one agreed with his position, his courage in taking it was impressive.
Because the program was short (which is seldom a feature of contemporary music concerts, but ought to be) we moved without intermission to Three Character Studies by composer/soprano Kristin Norderval with text by Naomi Wallace. The piece (which will one day be an opera) describes the life of Argentinean architect Patricia Isasa, a survivor of Argentina’s Dirty War, who brought her abductors to justice 30 years later. It began with a radiant portrayal by Emily Donato of Isasa as a young girl, dreaming of becoming an architect—”I’m already a city inside. I feel the design just under my skin.” We next heard a song, delivered with appropriate chilliness by Daniel Pincus, from one of her torturers—”To keep the house clean there’s a small price to pay. . .Don’t point a finger at me.” And lastly we heard Kristin Norderval perform the adult Isasa: “Ask me of torture, I’ll spell it out clear. I won’t hold back details, I’ve long lost that fear. But why don’t you ask of love?” The ensemble which performed the music included an accordion, an inventive percussionist, and Ms. Norderval, who not only sang with tremendous emotional depth but created electronic accompaniment with her laptop as she performed. Although the subject was dark, the lively performances and music included humor and surprise, which brought out the humanity and dreams of Isasa, and did not limit her to a victim’s role.
Last up was Great Small Works, a theater collective that performed, with Idith Meshulam and Kristin Norderval, the lively songs and music of Hans Eisler, written with his collaborator Brecht. Although they are also known for their giant puppet pageants, the roots of Great Small Works work for the small stage lie in Victorian Toy Theater. They perform on a traditionally-sized puppet stage, which they call the Jewel Box stage, not with hand puppets or marionettes, but with beautifully, intricately drawn cutouts which are moved with little hooks and puppeteers hands’ across the small stage, and projected overhead on a large screen. Their interpretation of the song “Supply and Demand” was really fun, with occasional contemporary interpolations like a depiction of students struggling up a mountain labeled “One trillion dollars in student debt.” The images of the puppet show also reflected the tragedy of composer Eisler’s life, in which he first had to flee the Nazis in Germany because of his politics and artistic experimentation, and then was placed on the Hollywood Blacklist and deported for his early Communist party connections. The bent, drawn figures, moving through crazy cityscapes that reflect Depression-era art, evoked both the composer’s life and music. The songs were sung with humor and lilt by Kristin Norderval in her elegant soprano, and the excerpts from Eisler’s chamber works were played with deep understanding, spirit, and élan by pianist Idith Meshulam.
Contemporary chamber music is often known to take itself a little too seriously, and, had it been a traditional two hour, one intermission, performance of music alone, the topic of this evening could have easily led to a kind of depressing introspection. But instead, by abandoning the borders that separate art forms, by introducing new ways of presenting and performing, and by doing it in the tiny but lovely space that is the cell theater. Ensemble Pi said What Must Be Said with intelligence, humor, and compassion, and offered its audience, which had been through enough in the last few weeks, an opportunity for both reflection and inspiration.
The IAF is grateful to blogger/photographer James Wagner for allowing us to use the photos he took of this concert. All photos in this post are credited to him, with all rights reserved. Please check out his Web site at www.jameswagner.com.