Recent Concerts

Search for Home, November 12&13, 2016

Search for Home: On Movement and Migration
November 12&13, 2016
Michael Blaakman, Sonja Bontrager, Conrad Erb, Amy Hochstetler, Nicandro Iannicci, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Cortlandt Matthews, Brian Middleton, Hank Miller, John Piccolini, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Melinda Steffy, Emily Sung, Caroline Winschel, Michele Zuckman

David Ludwig, The New Colossus
arr. Moira Smiley, Wayfaring Stranger
Tomas Luis de Victoria, Super Flumina Babylonis
Heinrich Isaac, Innsbruch, ich muss dich lassen
Stacy Garrop, Give Me Hunger
Dale Trumbore, Where Go the Boats?
Christopher Marshall, This Big Moroccan Sea
trad. Bambuti chant, Ama ibu o iye
Abbie Betinis, Suffer no Grief from From Behind the Caravan: Songs of Hâfez
Johannes Brahms, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein
Ysaye Barnwell, We Are
Stephen Paulus, The Road Home
arr. Hall Johnson, Great Camp Meeting
Jocelyn Hagen, Now Our Meeting’s Over

Notes on the Program

We know that ours is a nation of immigrants; most of us here today descended from ancestors born on other shores. And yet the story of immigrants is not history. It is a living story being experienced by people all over the world at this moment. Our current political discourse might have us believe that immigrants, refugees, and America’s potential response to them is a tale of extremes: either an open welcome or a wall. The truth is not so black and white. Immigrants’ stories are varied and nuanced, but the thread common throughout is one of upheaval: there is uncertainty, pain, and loss, yes, but in these narratives there is also discovery, yearning, and opportunity. The stories in this program represent a range of journeys, from desperate to intentional, from community-wide to introspective. Whether or not we have experienced the physical act of leaving our homeland behind, it is clear that longing for “home,” whether or not home is a physical place, is a universal feeling. Today we journey together, seekers and refugees all.

We begin with local composer David Ludwig’s setting of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus.” Lazarus donated the poem to a fundraiser for the Statue of Liberty, and it was inscribed on a plaque at the statue’s base in her memory in 1903. Her words have become the voice of the Statue of Liberty as she welcomes ships full of “huddled masses” to New York. Ludwig’s simple yet evocative setting, moving from unison to lush harmony, lets the poem speak for itself.

Believed to have roots in Appalachian folk tradition, “Wayfaring Stranger” has been adopted by the American folk, country, and gospel music communities, and it also appears in some hymnals. Like many spirituals, its message of traveling through toil to reach a better––be it a spiritual journey to the afterlife or a physical journey to a new home––gives hope to those experiencing hardship. Contemporary composer Moira Smiley’s arrangement incorporates call and response and syncopation, elements common in spirituals, and, like many of her arrangements, a driving beat provided by body percussion.

Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Super flumina Babylonis” sets the Latin text of the beginning of Psalm 137. The enslaved Israelites mourn their exile from Jerusalem and the cruelty of their captors: ordered to sing and dance along the way, they abandon their instruments, lamenting, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

“Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen,” a slightly early composition by Heinrich Isaac, is, by contrast, a secular tale of a traveler who leaves willingly but is nonetheless forlorn. Isaac himself traveled a great deal in his lifetime, from his home in Flanders to Germany, Austria, and Italy.

Poet Carl Sandburg is known for his rough, edgy portrayals of American industrialization and urban life. In At a Window, whose text Stacy Garrop set for her piece “Give Me Hunger,” he shows a rare softer side. He begins furiously, imploring the gods to give him their worst––“hunger, pain and want”––and, in a reference to Emma Lazarus’ welcoming “golden door,” challenging the gods to shut him out from “your doors of gold and fame.” But when his fury is spent, he pleads, “Leave me a little love.” Garrop mirrors the two contrasting halves of the poem with the two sections of the piece: the first is angsty, with a driving but unsettling rhythm and harsh sonorities, while the second wraps us in warm, lush harmonies that reflect the love for which we all yearn.

With Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Where Go the Boats?”, Los Angeles–based composer Dale Trumbore explores the deeper currents of a seemingly simple text for children. She writes, “I was struck by the fact that the narrator copes with the lost boats in the same way an adult must cope with lost love. Though the lost objects are gone forever, they will nonetheless be loved again in the future. This setting reflects a bit of that bittersweetness, that heartache.”

Christopher Marshall shows us a much darker look at the power of water in “This Big Moroccan Sea.” In 2006, a small, battered yacht washed ashore in Barbados that would be come to be known as the “death boat.” On board, authorities found the mummified bodies of 11 young men later determined to have left the coast of Cape Verde bound for the Canary Islands. Originally a group of 50 African migrants in search of a better life in Europe, they were abandoned by their paid guide when the yacht’s engine failed and left without food, water, or fuel to drift for months across the Atlantic. One victim, later determined to be Diao Souncar Diémé of Senegal, was found with a note penned before his death. In Marshall’s setting, Diémé’s heart-wrenching farewell is sung by the tenor soloist, while the choir echoes and surrounds him. When the soloist fades away, only the choir remains, evoking the overwhelming and unforgiving sea and sky.

We return for the second half of the program with “Ama ibu o iye,” a chant from the Bambuti people, an indigenous pygmy community in the rainforest in the Congo region of Central Africa. Imitating the sounds of the rainforest—a sacred place for the Bambuti—the chant calls the community together and is repeated until a sense of community has been achieved. As with many chant traditions, we learned this chant aurally: ensemble member Melinda Steffy taught it to us; she learned it years ago in a workshop with composer Ysaye Maria Barnwell, who had presumably learned it from someone else, and so on until the first transmission from the Bambuti community. This chant feels, perhaps, the most distant from our own context of any of the music on today’s program, and we acknowledge we know little about Bambuti culture or their singing traditions. Like the game of “telephone,” or the ongoing shifting of cultures across generations and geographies, we assume that information has been lost along the way—that meaning and style and context have changed as the chant has passed from one “generation” to the next, from one continent to another. It is our hope that by attempting to create our own community together as we sing, we honor the spirit of the chant and the Bambuti people.

Similarly, in setting the lyric poetry of 14th-century Persian poet Hâfez, Abbie Betinis admits, “The music is my own, and not authentically Persian. It is my interpretation of an assortment of influences, including my study of Persian speech, scales and modes.” Even if not authentically Persian, From Behind the Caravan honors the intonation of the language and the musical sensibilities inherent in the beautiful poetry. In the second movement, “Suffer no Grief,” which we excerpt today, Betinis highlights Hâfez’s longing for an end to suffering. Even amidst grief and displacement, we are assured that “there is no road that has no end.”

Paul Eber’s text “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein” is a prayer for help from God to lead us through our darkest hour. This heartfelt plea is not unlike the prayers heard in African-American spirituals. Johannes Brahms composed his setting of the text late in his life. The first chord is a simple G major, but from the next beat, the harmonies progress in complex, unexpected ways, giving a simple prayer an earnest urgency.

The similarities that bind us all, from Europe to Africa to the Appalachian mountains, are the focus of “We Are,” an iconic composition by educator, composer, and longtime member of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Ysaye Maria Barnwell. Especially in our current political climate, refugees and immigrants are so often painted as foreign, alien “others.” But the human longing for love and for home unite us in spite of any differences that appear to divide us, as so many pieces on today’s program demonstrate, and Barnwell’s piece culminates by reminding us: we are one.

Prolific American composer Stephen Paulus is renowned for simple yet moving hymn-like pieces, and “The Road Home” is no exception. The tune is taken from a song called “The Lone Wild Bird” from The Southern Harmony Songbook, published in 1835. Paulus’ friend and frequent collaborator, poet Michael Dennis Browne, was between visits to his native England to see his ailing sister when he wrote the text for the piece. The universal theme of searching for home pairs perfectly with the pentatonic melody. Paulus wrote of the piece, “The most powerful and beautiful message is often a simple one.”

Hall Johnson was born in Athens, Georgia, and grew up hearing spirituals sung by his mother and grandmother, both of whom had been slaves. Johnson went on to have an incredibly accomplished musical career and became one of a group of composers and arrangers who helped to elevate the spiritual to a respected art form in itself. His Hall Johnson Choir, whose arrangement of “Great Camp Meeting” we sing, traveled the world and appeared on movie soundtracks throughout the 1930s and 40s.

We conclude with American composer Jocelyn Hagen’s arrangement of a traditional folk song, “Now Our Meeting’s Over.” Like so many of the pieces on our program today, the message of the text is simple, yet universal, and can be interpreted either secularly or spiritually. We will meet our lost loved ones “on that shore”: we may be yearning to reunite with them in a promised land that is a new home across the sea or in the afterlife. Listen as the melody moves and is highlighted by each voice part in turn, reiterating that the search for home and for love is one that unites us all.

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