IN: Reviews

A Less-Traveled Long Road: O Lungo Drom


The dedicatee, Romani Rose

In the fateful year 1937, Kurt Weill’s enormous opera-oratorio  The Eternal Road attempted nothing less than to relate the entire history of the Jewish people and prevent it from ending. The original Broadway production required 245 players and ran for 153 performances, giving musical expression to  the fates of nomads, displaced persons, and marginalized people in Europe.

In 2015, the German-born composer Ralf Yusuf Gawlick, a Boston College professor, who was adopted in his infancy, discovered (at age 40-something) that his Gastarbeiter mother had been a Romni from a village by the Black Sea. His autobiographical string quartet Imagined Memories, “probes into the realms of a relationship that never was; a bond with my biological mother, who I never met — or rather, as it turns out, thought I would never meet.” As he delved more into the history of his newly acknowledged kinsmen, he felt compelled to respond as a composer to something of their 20th-century history. Thanks to a commission from the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien, a 70-minute oratorio for chamber ensemble and two singers, O Lungo Drom (The Long Road), came into being. And because of the lateness of the Roma peoples’ adoption of written languages, Gawlick’s work takes pride of place as the first such to celebrate the voice of these peoples with their own words. The world has taken notice, and Decca released the work on CD [HERE] just a few days ago. Readers might also be interested in Roger Moreno-Rathgeb’s large, dramatic Latinate Requiem for Auschwitz played by the Roma and Sinti Philharmonics under direction of Riccardo M. Sahiti HERE.**

For an advanced composer working in vernaculars, cultural clash is inevitable, yet cultural appropriation did not factor into this case since Gawlick mined the writings of his own Kultur. The composer artfully assembled a libretto from “thirteen different poets from thirteen different Roma/Sinti authors in ten languages and Romanes dialects, organized in a three-part narrative: I. Ascent – II. Nadir – III. Vista. “Along with a Danse Macabre, Litany and echoes of “Lili Marleen” from Auschwitz, these voices combine to pave and express worlds of melancholy, grief, nostalgia, and exultation through rhapsodic, bittersweet, elegiac and introspective lyricism.”

Within the composers personal voice, some of us detected surprising echoes of the “Dance of the Hours” from La Giocanda; the ministrations of the culturally steeped cimbalomist László Rácz summoned up Richard Heymann’s “Wien und der Wein” in the last number “I’ll sell you my tears.” I also imagined Norbert Glanzberg’s profoundly sad “Ule my son.” In fact much of Gawlick’s affect summoned up a vanished Mitteleuropa, though only once via direct quotation. While much of his often-Klezmeratic music angularly evoked its generalized sources, the oratorio included one direct appropriation: Norbert Schulze’s (1937) “Lili Marlene” sung to ironically caustic words which Ceija Stojka, an Austrian Romni and Holocaust survivor heard while imprisoned in Auschwitz: “There’s a hospital in our camp/Oh, whoever goes out in won’t come out again.” I understand that some consider this setting almost a sacred text, but to these ears the familiar love song did not work in Gawlick’s context. Romas aren’t the only ones who  thumbed thjeir noses at death. The German Jewish composer Victor Ullmann, who  wrote Der Kaiser von Atlantis at the showplace camp Theresienstadt before being murdered there. He posited how, after death takes a holiday, the inmates beg him to return, since living had become unbearable. That satirical cantata makes us bleed when it pricks us.

The Long Road opened with an extended instrumental interlude that featured tritones, harmonics, slides, and double stops from the violins before the piano and cimbalom entered to build expectations. The baritone, imposing in a cantorial manner, began Ascent with the oft-repeated stanzas “Mother of my soul/ Romani am I,” Gawlick’s “personal testimonial and confession.” Then Gawlick’s own words (in Italian) invited the assorted authors, writers, and poets to “cite!” Over very lyrical accompaniment and tuneful humming, lively travel music summoned visions for: “Every night…when I close my eyes…I see many roads of the Roma/and where is the road I took for so long?!”

Since he also averred that poetry does not need music, it was not surprising that the most searing moments were spoken. After the powerful, deeply engaged, and sonically sumptuous soprano Clara Meloni, and baritone Christoph Filler (liquid over a range from trumpeted high Gs to profoundly hot-blooded low Fs) sang “I am a Rom, I just sing / Sing until the leaves fall down,” the heavens seemed to open at the repeated spoken words “Every Leaf a word.” This referred to the images of human ashes and leaves going up the chimneys of the concentration-camp crematoria and falling back to the turf; Gawlick had tone-painted this image through a dramatic flute cadenza. Indeed we had heard practically nothing from the intensely signifying flutist Silvia Careddu until this late, signal moment.

Gawlick gave every expert member of the ensemble― Régis Bringolf, and Sebastian Gürtler, violins; Subin Lee, viola; Florian Berner, cello; Ariane Haering, piano; Silvia Careddu, flute; and the easily idiomatic clarinetist Marlies Wieser ―important mini-cadenzas, and they all embraced the schmaltzy sliding, wailing style with the alacrity of HIP masters. Though as exponents of new music, they did so with differences.

Because of the plethora of languages, sometimes run-on sections, and un-noted repeated lines, we found it difficult to pin the waypoints on the map of the journey. We assume that the singers’ Sinti, Polish, and various dialects were as accent-free as their English, which is to say…

There was enough variety of mood in the materials from nostalgia, to urgency, to consolation, that even if the text setting at times felt non-specific, it cohered cumulatively, leaving us with warmth, rather than angst. Ultimately Gawlick came across as an earnest scribe who avoided laying a heavy guilt trip on us. This was no wailing Survivor From Warsaw. His self-discovery will likely continue to inspire him and us. Like the bittersweet little tramp prancing into the distance with his sweetheart, the singers faded out with a whistling* coda as if vanishing behind a curve in the long road. After a very long and poignant silence, the audience delivered its strong, sincere approbation.

O Lungo Drom (The Long Road) in US Premiere
Gasson Hall, Boston College, April 6th, 2024

Sponsored by: Institute for the Liberal Arts, Center For Human Rights and International Justice, BC History Department, BC Music Department

* According to a Sinti Holocaust survivor, whistling was for centuries (and continues to be used) as a sign by Sintis to recognize each other when finding themselves in hostile or foreign environments and places. She stressed that this included the extermination camps.

**The Philharmoniker is a pan-European orchestra of Roma and Sinto musicians generally employed by other classical orchestras; it is focused on the contribution of Roma culture to classical music. Dutch-Swiss Sinto Moreno Rathgeb wrote his requiem for all victims of Auschwitz and Nazi terror.

One may read another review HERE.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

1 Comment »

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for calling our attention to this appealing and unusual work when there are so many alluring concerts being offered in our vicinity. Anyone who is interested in the music of the Roma should try to be at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on May 24 for the festival of St. Sara. As we know, Vichy persecuted “les gens du Voyage” bitterly. And the Far-Right of Marine Le Pen is strong regionally in the Camargue, so the Festival might need protection.

    Comment by Anne Davenport — April 9, 2024 at 8:39 am

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