Nathan Farro (American Record Guide) reviews sheltering voices


Nathan Farro (American Record Guide) reviews Sheltering Voices: 

Upon perusing the 2018/2019 season brochure of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one would notice something new in its pages: a small, but significant uptick in composers that are women or people of color, from Lili Boulanger and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel to Adolphus Hailstork and the newly reappraised Florence Price. These inclusions aren’t a radical change, but they constitute an important step toward dismantling the status quo that relegates women and non-white composers to the sidelines. Part of this change can be attributed to the persistence of a group of young musicians, including cellist Alan Toda-Ambaras, who insisted at a round table meeting with the Boston Symphony’s artistic board that diversity is worth investing in, and is in fact necessary for arts in Boston.

This push, however, is just a sliver of the larger impact Toda-Ambaras has affected on Boston’s creative community. He is the executive director of Eureka Ensemble, the new rising group of Boston’s classical music scene. Founded in 2017 by Toda-Ambaras and artistic director and conductor Kristo Kondakçi, Eureka is focused on social activism through music. This is nothing new to classical music—composers and performers alike have been socially conscious for years, and the largest orchestras typically engage in some form of philanthropic activity. It is the pervasity and directness of Eureka’s social outreach that makes it unique. During its first season, Eureka has enacted a program of community engagement to make classical music more accessible—a goal that should be a priority for all American ensembles. The ensemble has performed in public settings such as schools, libraries, and community centers, to underserved populations that may not otherwise be able to hear live performances of classical music. Eureka further aims to make change from not only the inherently empathetic qualities of music, but through tangible, collaborative methods of activism. Eureka (it itself a nonprofit) partners with social justice-minded nonprofits and service organizations to help sponsor a concert; in return, they gain important exposure from Eureka’s performances. This was certainly the case with the culmination of Eureka’s first full season, the high-profile May 12 concert titled “Sheltering Voices”. The goal of “Sheltering Voices” was to “empower women artists and composers, homeless women, support homeless shelters, and raise awareness about domestic abuse” through music. The partners for the concert, then, were Pine St. Inn, Women’s Lunch Place, and Rosie’s Place, three Boston homeless shelters and resource centers, the latter two being women-centric. Thanks to a word-of-mouth campaign alongside news coverage - including from viral news source NowThis - the concert was well-attended, and donations of money and supplies to these partners have soared.

The programming reflects the goals for this concert. All of the composers, librettists, arrangers, and soloists featured on the program were women, an occurrence still relatively uncommon, even in more progressive classical circles. The performances were top notch, too—Kondakçi brought a conducting style characterized by careful sensitivity and passionate emotionality.

The concert opened with Prayer and Celebration by Augusta Read Thomas, a warm, lyrical four-minute piece in the tradition of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Mahler’s “Adagietto” from his Fifth Symphony. Thomas notes that the piece is designed to be performed “by orchestras of all levels”, a valuable quality, seeing as most of American orchestras are amateur community ensembles, for whom much of new music is woefully out of reach. It was a pleasant way to begin the concert.

Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata was wonderful, as well. As violist, I am familiar with the work—it is one of the finest in the viola repertoire. However, the present orchestration by the late Ruth Lomon was brand new to me. Lomon brings out the alternating senses of mystery and majesty, using orchestral colors that the Debussy-influenced Clarke surely would have appreciated. Violist Deanna Badizadegan commanded the orchestra with her outwardly expressive style, navigating these colors in triumphant and delicate passages. The work is a bold statement by a bold woman. Forced out of her home by a callous father at age 24, she quickly rose to prominence in British musical society, becoming one of the first female professional violists. She faced struggles in male-dominated classical circles her whole life, and one can imagine that a bit of the confidence required to continue with her career is reflected in the Viola Sonata’s triumphant opening motive.

I have heard Amy Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony many times, and Eureka’s performance sounded utterly new. The first movement was especially stunning. The churning, stormy passages that open the symphony are wilder than ever, and the sudden switch from triple to duple meter at the end of the first theme—arguably one of the most exciting moments of the symphony—was electrifying. The work was composed in 1896, when the self-taught Beach was not yet 30. In 1893, the Czech Antonín Dvořák had premiered his Ninth Symphony “From the New World”, which he declared contained true American music - that is, music from African-American and Native American traditions. Beach responded with a call for broader inclusivity and diversity, first in a newspaper article arguing that American music should encompass a wide range of ethnicities. Then, with her symphony, which showcased Irish folk-song during a time when Boston’s elite—including members of her social circle and the audience—were still somewhat uncomfortable with Irish culture. Critics responded favorably, though some commented that such forceful music was unsuitable for a woman to write. If only Beach could hear Kondakçi’s fiery interpretation.

The true centerpiece of the “Sheltering Voices” concert was the world premiere of the cantata of the same name by Stephanie Ann Boyd, Eureka’s resident composer. It was also the debut of the Eureka Choral Fellows, which consists of women who are guests at Pine St. Inn, Women’s Lunch Place, and Rosie’s Place. During their time with Eureka, they received a stipend, as well as warm meals each rehearsal. Boyd worked from a libretto by fast-rising poet Jessica Lynn Suchon. Suchon’s raw, intimate poetry lays bare the struggles of recovery from emotional abuse, a major cause of homelessness for women. The text is so intense that it led to a major change in Boyd’s structure of the piece. According to Boyd, the chorus—with the Fellows—was to feature in every movement of the piece. When presented with Suchon’s frank and honest account of trauma in the first three sections, however, Boyd and Kondakçi agreed that it would not be fair to ask the Fellows to relive their own experiences of such trauma. Instead, these sections are sung by solo soprano, and the choir switches in for the final two movements, which focus on personal rebuilding and growth. While this is an elegant and practical solution to recognize the dignity of all participants, it is also a decision that feels completely natural in performance. Soprano Angel Azzarra gave an impassioned performance that flowed so organically that it was as if each phrase was spontaneously created in that very moment. She and Boyd both related to me their intense emotional reactions to the text, and the musical connection they experienced in the finished piece. Boyd's skill in writing inspired, interesting melodic lines is matched by Azzarra’s expressive immediacy in performance. The most exciting moment of the piece was the final line sung by Azzarra: “...Look, here I am nightingale. / Here, a song from my lyred, unbridled throat”. Then movement four begins, with the choir singing the nightingale song. The tone is one of hope, which steadily builds until the final shimmering chord on “each ravaged body brimming with light".

Sheltering Voices is a significant work, not just for the important subject matter, but for how it epitomizes Eureka’s mission, and offers a new path for music through activism. Boyd is certainly not the first to compose a socially-conscious work; take, for example, the 1930 opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoggany, a social satire with music by Kurt Weill and a libretto by Bertolt Brecht. It exemplifies a concept called Gebrauchsmusik, or “Music for Use”. Works like Mahoggany embody an interest in music as a mode of educating a listener about a social issue. Weill believed the best method of doing so was through satire, and by simplifying the music itself, through singable melodies and directness of expression. Boyd’s cantata can be considered similar to works of Gebrauchsmusik. She, like Weill, wants her music to be accessible to any audience member, and to serve a larger social purpose; in this case, raising awareness of the plight of victims domestic violence and homelessness. The music is consistently interesting, but never overly complex, and always serves to enlighten the text. However, rather than employ satire, she and Suchon directly communicate the purpose of the work to the audience. Boyd sees the worth in using dramatic expression in educating through music, striking a careful balance between public service announcement and emotional drama. This, in essence, is the secret to the success of Boyd—and Eureka: for music to serve a practical, tangible, measurable purpose, it doesn’t have to sacrifice the emotional qualities that make it moving and fulfilling, but rather harness it toward a greater goal. I am reminded of Alexandra Petri’s 2015 article for the Washington Post, “‘Hamilton’ and the end of irony”: the works of art that resonate most with us today are earnest, and for the better. The fewer obstacles to understanding a work of art, the more people that art can reach. It is a challenge to make art sound new and interesting while still making it accessible, but certain composers have achieved it, including Sibelius, Copland, Weill, and certainly Boyd.

Between the premiere Sheltering Voices and intermission, Kondakçi introduced the women of the Eureka Choral Fellows, and invited everyone in the church sanctuary—choir and audience—to sing “Amazing Grace”, the song with which the Fellows auditioned. It was a powerful moment of unity and togetherness, not least for the Fellows. In discussing this moment with Boyd after the concert, she mentioned that the fellowship program has been so successful that Boston’s Church of the Covenant, the site of the concert and of Women’s Lunch Place, plans to house a permanent choir for homeless women. It is breathtaking to consider what a single concert can do for a community—increase donations for an important cause, broaden an audience’s awareness of a social issue, and crucially, make music more accessible to those most in need of it. Not an easy feat, especially when considering that, excepting the Fellows, every performer in the concert—as well as Kondakçi and Boyd—is under the age of 30.

Nathan Faro