Monday, May 12, 2014


Some of you may know that I do research and write program notes for the Chicago Sinfonietta. Their final concert of their 2013-14 season deals with how we maintain our cultural identity, even if we are, through choice or otherwise, many miles and generations removed from the places we call home. I thought I'd reproduce those notes here, as I found the research fascinating and rewarding. Always learning, always learning...

Read on.

As both individuals and members of society, people are on a perpetual quest for identity. It brings order and perhaps even a sense of comfort to know who we are and what our place in the universe is. There are many ways to take measure of such things, among them what we do for a living and where we choose to live, what political or religious beliefs we adhere to, how we think about race, gender or sexual orientation. I would argue, though, that perhaps the strongest identifiers are those that have to do with culture and history.

For the final concert of their 2013-14 Season, the Chicago Sinfonietta looks at how traditions of art and culture define our sense of who we are as well as the way those traditions both connect us to our heritages and inform our present day lives. To do so, we look to two very different societies connected only by the Silk Road, China and Eastern Europe.  They’ll perform contemporary works that are deeply tied to their respective ethnic traditions that simultaneously say something new, and in the process perhaps share a bit of knowledge and cultural pride with those who are willing to listen.  

This journey of discovery starts in Eastern Europe, and more specifically, the small Jewish villages called shtetls that dotted Poland, Romania, the Ukraine and other countries for nearly 800 years, only to disappear almost overnight with the onset of World War II.  Our first two selections are both by the Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson, who is an Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia College Chicago. Levinson immigrated to the United States in 1998, and is a graduate of both the Moscow State Conservatory and the University of Chicago. His identity serves as rich material for his work.

Shtetl Scenes was written by Levinson in 2005 and it is, in his words, a “nostalgia cycle”. He wrote it “about a world that is lost [and] not coming back” and to “give a voice to those who cannot speak.” It was originally written for piano, but the version being performed by the Sinfonietta is a full orchestral arrangement. We will hear two of the cycle’s five movements. The first, Forgotten Dreams, imagines an idealized life in the shtetl, forever lost to the Holocaust, even as that dream slowly slips away with time. The second movement, Freylakh, is a lively dance of the type that was enjoyed in these long gone places, full of rhythm and exuberance. This piece starts slowly and suddenly its pace accelerates to a very fast tempo.

The stage now set, we come to the first of our two concert centerpieces.

Klezmer is a combination of the Hebrew words "kley" (vessel) and "zemer" (melody), describing musical instruments in ancient times. It came to be used to describe Jewish folk musicians sometime in the middle ages.  In the 1970s, “klezmer music” and “klezmer band” were terms coined to describe the revival of Eastern European dance music and Yiddish folk and theater songs. It’s a rollicking sound that shares much with jazz and Latin music.

Maxwell Street Klezmer Band
As a music professor and composer, Levinson’s research interests include klezmer music and the klezmer idiom in contemporary concert music. He was asked to compose a klezmer-based orchestral work in 1998 by Phil Simmons, the artistic director of the Linclonwood Chamber Orchestra. Because most klezmer tunes are a short 3 or 4 minutes in length, Levinson quickly settled on the genre of rhapsody. This allowed him to build a concert-length piece out of a series of exciting musical episodes, much like such works as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody.   Thus was born the Klezmer Rhapsody.

Once Levinson determined the form, he set about introducing the more dissonant harmonic and contrapuntal practices of the 20th century in the work, using these to break up the structure, rhythms and harmonies of the klezmer melodies. All the themes of the piece are original, but they were composed using certain rhythmic, melodic and harmonic idioms of klezmer music, and thus intended to bring to mind traditional melodies. He worked closely with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band’s musical director Alex Koffman to insure the work’s authenticity, and it premiered in 1999 as an orchestral piece with Koffman as violin soloist. The story of Klezmer Rhapsody, however, doesn’t end there.

Levinson later arranged the work for violin and klezmer band sans orchestra and this version appears on the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band’s 2005 album Old Roots New World. Tonight, the Chicago Sinfonietta premieres a brand new version for klezmer band and orchestra. For this new arrangement, Levinson has thoroughly reworked and re-conceptualized the piece to take advantage of the dynamic interplay between the two ensembles. In this version, there is a bit of a musical joke going on, as the orchestra “learns” about klezmer and the band alternately supports or makes fun of their efforts. By the end of the piece, though, both ensembles speak in a unified voice.

Maestro Mei-Ann Chen is, as you might guess, no stranger to Asian music, but she is also someone who has rigorously mastered Western classical music as well.  The very first time she ever led the Chicago Sinfonietta, in October of 2009, her program paired two works from contemporary Chinese composers with works from Ravel and Rachmaninoff.  She might very well be the perfect conductor to introduce the evening’s third featured work, Identity: Zhongshang Zhuang, to Chicago audiences.
Su Chang
Identity combines the musical traditions of Western and Chinese culture in a piece that is accessible to international audiences. A romantic orchestral concerto setting provides the backdrop for the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument that is plucked and strummed like a harp. The instrument, which is nearly 3800 years old, is an ancestor to the Japanese koto, Korean gayagaeum and Vietnamese đàn tranh.  Its mesmerizing timbre and lightning agility blend the familiar and the exotic, and Identity showcases its unique sound. Tonight’s soloist, Su Chang, traveled to Chicago from China for this performance.
The work is a collaboration between Chinese producer and composer Victor Cheng and American composer Michael Gordon Shapiro, and as such, Identity bears the musical signature of both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Cheng composed the core themes and established the direction of the piece. The Los Angeles-based Shapiro, a graduate of the film scoring program at the University of Southern California, also has a graduate degree in music composition from New York University and a background in writing music for video games. Both of these fields demand a high degree of story and character-related musical skill. He took Cheng’s themes (and detailed story line) and scored them for orchestra and, of course, the guzhang.

Identity tells a fictionalized story of a family ripped apart by conflicting loyalties during the time of the Chinese civil war, sending some members into exile.  As such, it is divided into three movements, each of which tells a different part of the story: Peaceful times, conflict, victory, exile, remembrance. The versatility of the guzheng comes into play, as it alternately represents the pastoral beauty of the Chinese landscape, the harsh realities of war and the loneliness and despair that come from separation. Nostalgia, longing and resolution are all conveyed by its tone and timbre. Ultimately, the piece seems to say, even though civil war divides a people along political and philosophical lines, at heart they retain a common identity that survives and perhaps points the way toward reconciliation.

As noted earlier, when Ilya Levinson first approached writing a klezmer piece for orchestra, he immediately thought of the form of a rhapsody, something like Rhapsody in Blue or the Romanian Rhapsody. Thus, it seems only fitting that we close the Identities concert with George Enescu’s most famous piece. Enescu himself was a concert violinist as well as a composer and conductor. He was a bit of a prodigy, graduating from the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 13, continuing on to study in Paris. His compositions were influenced by Romanian folk music, and he was a champion of other Romanian composers. Enescu’s musical curiosity went beyond mere provincialism, though, and included Balinese gamelan and Indian music.

The Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 is the better known of the two he wrote, and he is said to have remarked that it “was just a few tunes thrown together without thinking about it". Though this is an incredible understatement of modesty, that model helped Levinson write Klezmer Rhapsody, based as it is on several traditional klezmer song forms, all of which are short in length. At any rate, Enescu completed the first rhapsody in 1901 at the age of 19. It is ebullient and outgoing, as is fitting for a work that takes its starting point with a folk song whose English translation is "I have a coin, and I want a drink".

This lighthearted work is perhaps the best way to close an evening which, while providing superb and often exhilarating entertainment, also gives us much to ponder about the sometimes tragic vagaries of history and the universal imperative to remain true to both ourselves and our heritage. Through this, we can draw strength from our own identities.

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