by Leon Golub
The poet Seamus Heany speaks of “the music of what happens.” On Sunday at St. Paul’s in Brookline, Winsor Music’s remarkably visceral works centered on Milad Yousufi’s sextet (counting the voice of the narrator) My Journey to America. The first half featured six choral preludes from Alan Fletcher’s recent arrangements of selections from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, a passionate and thrilling performance of Philip Glass’s Mad Rush, and a short Hippocratic Oath for the Spirit, commissioned by Winsor Music from Osnat Netzer in tribute to frontline health-care workers.
The Bach arrangements divided into two sets of three. Simone Dinnerstein (piano) and Peggy Pearson (oboe) rendered Fletcher’s innovate versions of In dir ist Freude (BWV 615), Christum, wir wollen loben schon (BWV 611) and Gott, durch deine Güte (BWV 600). The combination of the disciplined but highly expressive rippling of Dinnerstein’s piano with the deep, earthy sound of Pearson’s oboe reminded us that prayer, longing and hope are all about our suffering incarnation. We began to “listen with our muscles” as Nietzsche put it. Dinnerstein then performed Mad Rush with spellbinding effect, boldly giving the contemplative opening the deep luscious feeling of a Chopin nocturne and the three “rush” passages the turbulence of Rachmaninoff. Slipping out of her shoes in order to feel the pedals more intimately, she played with deep feeling throughout, reconnecting us to the flesh of the world, its shifting temperature gradients and high winds, its chasms and torrents. Quiet passages were full of inner passion, like an initiation into the cosmos. The finale, made up of single notes struggling to ascend upwards against the pull of gravity, served as a mysterious farewell.
The next three Bach arrangements added Gabriela Diaz (violin) and Rane Moore (Bass clarinet) to Dinnerstein and Pearson, as though adding flesh to flesh to render a beautifully baroque, somber, pleading Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639), a passionate Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 610) in stunning unison, and a joyously carnal Herr Gott, nun Schleuss den Hummel auf (BWV 617). Stephanie Fong (viola) and Emma Taggart then came on stage to join the other musicians for Osnat Netzer’s Hippocratic Oath for the Spirit. Netzer herself explicitly set her work “in dialogue with the embodied experience of physical forces.” It possessed a healing touch and a sincere sense of resonance, but could not really match the outpouring of physicality that emerged in the magnificent Glass piece or the haunting carnality of the Bach arrangements.
The second half took embodiment to a new and impressive level. Milad Yousufi, who is an Afghan refugee now on the faculty at Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, composed My Journey in America (2019) as an interweaving of text and music, voice and instrument. Reminiscent in some respect of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, the work has an epic feel, highly personal in intensity and universal in scope. Yousufi himself read the poignant texts for each of the seven segments in a laconic, subdued voice. The opening text described the night of his birth, when his father took his mother to the hospital on a bicycle, pursued by rabid dogs in war-torn Kabul. Emma Taggart (piano) opened the first instrumental piece with crashing chords, swiftly joined by an edgy Moore (bass clarinet), an angst-filled Diaz (violin) and a fearful Fong (viola) to create a marvelously complex cacophony of emotions and dread. Then, suddenly, Pearson blew into the unattached reeds of her oboe and we heard the baby cry. A nursery tune materialized on the piano while the strings hummed gently but with increasing momentum and danger, suggesting the background terror of the war, amplified by the clarinet until the piece ends suddenly in a crash.
The second episode, on the Sorrow of Separation, evoked the death of a playmate, killed by a mine, with distinctive Middle-Eastern scales, effective cuts and silences, and a fatalistic flavor throughout. The third episode payed tribute to the father in a dignified musical portrait, elegiac and moving, ending with the musicians humming. The fourth episode, like a scherzo, narrated the evening ritual of killing mosquitoes before going to sleep on a hot summer night. Diaz (violin) created an unforgettably mischievous mosquito. The very idea of linking sound to involuntary memory worked brilliantly. It also exemplifies embodied knowledge. A lyrical “poem to my mother” with exquisite pizzicato on the violin and tender oboe ensued, followed by a sort of dance episode depicting “meeting Simone Dinnerstein” and embracing the multi-ethnic vibrancy of Brooklyn. In this episode, Moore gave the clarinet a Kletzmer feel, high notes from Diaz gave a precarious tinge and Taggart’s lovely high register ripples in the piano seemed to transform fate into a new kind of existential work-in-progress, fed by hope. The final episode, Farewell to Kabul, seemed to play with space, distance and locality – the parameters of our extended embodiment. Taggart’s piano took on a quasi-Glass like repetitive motion while Diaz’s violin turned modernistic, uprooted and vagabond, only to be reframed in mood by Moore’s clarinet, which re-rooted the sound in a global humanity. Afghan folk tunes mingled in a new global village, like waves of memory punctuated by Pearson’s oboe, building momentum into a frenzy and ending in catharsis. Throughout, the passionately personal blossomed into a shared and universal journey into greater empathy, greater vulnerability to each other and greater embodiment. The concert was a rich and transformative experience. As a leading philosopher of embodiment, Richard Kearney, explains: “We listen with our skin and our skin remembers.”
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Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.