IN: Reviews

Further Down the Long Road

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This account supplements an earlier review of the US premiere of Ralf Yusuf Gawlick’s 2022 oratorio, “O Lungo Drom (The Long Road)” at Boston College’s Gasson Hall on Saturday.

I have been Ralf Gawlick’s colleague at Boston College since 2008, and through the CD label, Musica Omnia, which I co-founded in 2000, also the producer for seven CD projects devoted to a wide, diverse range of his music (Opp. 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 20 & 21). I have come to know his music and process from the perspective of a friend and colleague who has been present and actively involved in his works since 2010. This provides me with a uniquely broad insight into his compositional career, goals and mindset. Boston Musical Intelligencer Publisher Lee Eiseman has already written a detailed and insightful account of his own attendance at the Boston premiere on Saturday [HERE]. As O Lungo Drom is a major work of considerable complexity, I have offered to add my own perspective to his in order to provide the reader with perhaps a broader overview than can be obtained through a single encounter with the piece. Mine is designed to supplement, but not to replace, his excellent written response to the work.

As Ralf’s long-time producer, I have been instrumental in identifying and engaging interpreters for his works through my own contacts in the musical world, where I am known as an experienced performing musician in my own right and have come to know many other performers in many countries. Before describing the present work directly, including the Boston performance, I’d like to trace a direct connection between this piece and one of its direct predecessors, Imagined Memories, op. 20 (2016), a string quartet dedicated to Ralf’s birth mother, Naciye Zeren, from Turkey, whom he never expected to meet; hence the title. Naciye, whom Ralf always assumed to be Kurdish, a young guest worker in Germany, had placed him for adoption shortly after his birth in 1969. His given name was Yusuf Mustafa Zeren. He was adopted by the Gawlick family, his origins receding into the realm of memory and imagination.  

In 2015, while researching recordings of Schubert’s G Major Quartet, D. 887, I encountered a great one by a young ensemble from Vienna, the Hugo Wolf Quartett, whose members had studied, among other teachers, with the famed Alban Berg Quartett. As Ralf was seeking interpreters for his new work, then in its latter stage of composition, I emailed them and, as they happened to be performing in nearby Worcester, traveled with Ralf and his wife, Boston College colleague and fellow-musician, Basia, to hear the concert and meet them. I had known and worked with their previous violist, Gertrud Weinmeister in Vienna in the 1990s, so, felt a connection. Highly impressed by them and their performance, Ralf dedicated the new quartet to them, and it premièred both in Carnegie Hall and at Boston College. The work was also recorded for our label, Musica Omnia, in April, 2016.

Subsequently, Ralf made the discovery that Naciye, his birth-mother, was, in fact not Kurdish (that connection was through his father), but Roma. She was living in a small village outside Istanbul and, in an amazing sequence of events, Ralf was able to find and meet her, culminating in her attendance at the Viennese premiere of Imagined Memories (though no longer, in fact, “imagined”) in the Musikverein. This spurred Ralf to investigate his own new-found Roma heritage, and O Lungo Drom, a tripartite cantata for two singers and eight instrumentalists, featuring a prominent role for the quintessential Roma instrument, the cimbalom, a sophisticated hammered dulcimer, was the result. As had been the case with Imagined Memories, I was in touch with Ralf for much of the duration of the work’s conception and creation, lending a critical eye and ear as it took shape. The oratorio was dedicated to the newly-constituted, seven-member Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (ABEW), with the Hugo Wolff Quartett as its string nucleus, the augmented group receiving the endorsement of the Alban Berg Foundation in Vienna, in direct succession to the celebrated Alban Berg Quartett, which had disbanded in 2008.

In October, 2022, Ralf, Basia and I travelled to Berlin for the world première of the work, as part of a major Sinti-Roma conference, involving the presence of leading figures in both the Roma leadership community and the German government. The initial read-through of the piece took place in a nondescript rehearsal space in a Berlin suburb. As the musicians made their initial journey through the work, uniquely tailored to their abilities, the three of us sat and followed the score with a mixture of hopeful anticipation, trepidation and mild anxiety; for, even the most promising work on the drawing board is potentially risky in the realization: will it actually work in practice? Indeed, it did!

As the musicians concluded their run, Ralf, quite overcome with relief and, I think a genuine pride that the work had succeeded, retreated to the kitchen: I followed and told him that I felt that the piece had true greatness in it, an impression that was confirmed by every subsequent hearing, and especially through the intense process of recording it in October, 2023. We were all profoundly moved by the impression that it made, even in an initial, far-from-perfect, reading. Its greatness lay in the gravitas of both the topic and its wider context; the quality of ideas and invention; the skillful setting of a multiplicity of different-language texts: German, Italian, Polish, English, Spanish, Latvian and Churar Romani dialects, Macedonian, Serbian & French; the idiomatic and virtuosic solos for various instruments; the brilliant ensemble writing, all so carefully and expertly conceived specifically for the ABEW and its unique capabilities. To which one might also add: the simple beauty of the melodies and Ralf’s profound, instinctive understanding of Roma musical idioms. As well as the seven regular members of the ABEW, the addition of the Roma virtuoso cimbalomist, László (Láci) Rácz, imparted a unique and unmistakable authenticity to the ensemble’s timbre, aided by Ralf’s idiomatic and virtuosic writing for this instrument, based on close consultation with its player: it is a kind of signature for the entire soundscape of O Lungo Drom, akin to the continuo in Baroque music, a constant presence, at once functional and beautiful.

Ralf Gawlick’s Compositional Vision for O Lungo Drom; Recording the Work:

Ralf’s deep knowledge of the gamut of the Western musical canon, his melodic fluency and inventiveness, and his technical mastery created a compelling epic in three distinct and profoundly contrasted sections, titled (actually by both Ralf and me — he once called me for suggestions): Ascent – Nadir – Vista, outlining and contrasting 1,000 years of the Roma story; a “Long Road” indeed. After the successful Berlin premiere in 2022, a year later, in October, 2023, Ralf and I traveled to Austria where, in the tiny Austro-Hungarian village of Raiding, celebrated mainly as the birthplace of Franz Liszt, the first Western composer to truly hear the voice of the Roma and honor it in his works, we assisted in overseeing the recording (in the magnificent new Liszt Zentrum/concert hall, next door to Liszt’s birth house) of the entire work by the ABEW, with the newly-added participation of Clara Meloni (soprano) and Christoph Filler (baritone), two exceptional young singers. Basia Gawlick, who remained a closely-involved figure throughout the genesis of this piece, was the expert vocal coach for all the (difficult) Polish language sections; the final perfection is a tribute to her teaching skills in her native language, and as an instinctive musician. Despite having personally overseen seven prior CD releases into production for Musica Omnia, I was able, through my association with Cyrus Meher-Homji, the innovative and entrepreneurial Australian Vice-President of Jazz & Classics for Universal Australia, to achieve a much wider distribution platform for this latest recording of Ralf’s music by having it appear on the Australian branch of the Decca/Eloquence label, as their first release of new music. Eloquence, indeed!

 The performance

Which now brings us back to the April 6 Boston performance of the piece on our own turf in Boston College’s Gasson Hall, which Lee covered so admirably in his review. Among our capacity audience were around twenty members of my two music history classes (and many other students from other professors, including Ralf & Basia) as well as numerous members of the wider public. My own students were prepared for the event by twelve weeks of being taught that all surviving, notable music of every era was once cutting-edge, progressive, “new” music, exploring the as-yet unknown, and such music was clearly identifiable in terms of its challenging and expansive effect on contemporaneous participants and their expectations: including composer, performers, listeners, the then-current limits of instrumental and vocal techniques, as well as on the very parameters of musical form and structure itself. Such works literally changed the course of musical history. The latest example to appear in our course’s chronology by 6 April was the 1824 premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which transcended all expectation and, simultaneously created wonder and controversy among critics and listeners alike, whose comfort zones were clearly invaded and challenged. I told the students to expect to have their own horizons extended by encountering those same forces in our own time and place through Professor Gawlick’s new work. They were not disappointed.

We had a capacity audience and Gasson Hall (to our collective relief) provided a worthy venue for this debut of a major work by a Boston (and, indeed Boston College-based) composer of unique vision and international standard and acclaim. The hall’s acoustics were excellent, the American Steinway “D” piano absolutely worthy of the piece, with its highly intricate and demanding keyboard writing, as well as able to support the transcendent technique of the exceptional pianist of the ABEW, Ariane Haering. As to the work and the impression it made: first, the performance, now the product of an ensemble fully familiar with and attuned to its unique contours, with all the attendant subtleties and intricacies of its intense sixty-six minutes, was truly on an astounding technical and musical plane: these musicians are simply among Europe’s finest. Timbral beauty, a wide range of expression and, where called for, effortless virtuosity were all on full display. Clara Meloni and Christoph Filler negotiated every vocal challenge with extraordinary skill and sureness of delivery. Their authentic and detailed enunciation of a dazzling array of different languages, dialects and vocal techniques was exemplary, filling Gasson with emotional power; an aura of expressive and dramatic force was clearly evident throughout.

The instrumentalists of the ABEW negotiated the highly demanding score with bravura, sensitivity and exquisite shading of dynamics and expression. They played, literally, as though this piece was truly theirs; so well integrated is their sense of ensemble that individual praise is superfluous. The range of colors and exotic, advanced instrumental techniques created and demanded by the composer tested performers and instruments to their limits; this collective challenge was amazing for the audience to experience, truly fulfilling my students’ expectations of what now denotes cutting-edge “new” music, and has throughout the ages. In his parallel review, Lee has written in impressive detail about the background to Ralf’s work, so I’ll limit myself to pointing out some of my own personal highlights (there were many others), gleaned from hearing the initial run through in Berlin plus three subsequent complete performances, as well as recording the piece in sections over three intense days.

First, and most obviously: the work is as strikingly original as it is beautiful; this is something obvious that we often forget to acknowledge when reviewing a new piece. It is beautiful in its intensity, in its uncompromising honesty and in the way it honors the writers of the texts by setting them so idiomatically and well. This is all underlined by the piece’s masterful design, clearly the product of a highly sophisticated composer who well understands what makes music work for an audience comprising different levels of experience and with diverse expectations. As Mozart observed about his piano concertos (and he was the expert pianist for whom they were composed): there are passages for connoisseurs and amateurs (in the sense of “music lovers”) alike, of great simplicity alongside the most advanced artistic complexity. Word painting – a pivotal technique in music since the Renaissance – abounds throughout the work. One of the examples that struck me most is towards the end of part III, Vista, first, in English, passed between both singers:

I am a Rom, I just sing,
Sing until the leaves fall down.

Then, immediately after, in German:

Jedes Blatt ein Wort (every leaf a word)

This transformation of the effect of the words through a simple change of language is profound and amazing: a complete color shift.

I would also single out the central sequence of Part II, the often-harrowing Nadir, which deals with the ultimate atrocity of the Roma experience in the Nazi death camps of World War II. First, the extended instrumental section Totentanz (Dance of Death) introduces a demonic theme which Lee and I both heard independently — I mentioned it to Ralf in Berlin, though it had not occurred to him when he wrote it) — as echoing Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” Ralf’s treatment of it in close imitative counterpoint, claustrophobic in its intensity, spread among many instruments including the strings, playing a gaudy, ghostly pizzicato, gives the impression of an urgent, demonically frenzied parody of a dance. This is interrupted by the most chilling (and spoken) sequence in the entire work, the claustrophobic terror of anticipating the Gestapo’s knock at the door punctuated by unbearable, staccato, plucked notes on the “prepared” piano.

This leads to the sequence which, for me, and for all the fellow audience members to whom I spoke, was the most heartbreaking of all: the setting, to the popular 1939 tune, “Lili Marleen,” of a new text written down by a Roma inmate in the camps, designed, with devastating irony for that very tune. You can only try to imagine your human captors singing this earnest love song amongst themselves, while plotting and effecting your own destruction. After this, it’s impossible to hear the original song in the same way, having absorbed these words. Here’s a sample, completing the image of the crematorium, and the smoke disappearing up the chimney, carrying an entire people with it:

Although the smoke has now gone,
In the wind you can hear their song.

Chilling doesn’t begin to describe the horror of it. And then, the instrument (and its player, the amazing Silvia Careddu), both on stage for fifty minutes, finally speaks in an extraordinary solo that depicts (in an ascending and accelerating frenzy of chromatic sequences) the relentless rising of the smoke from the chimney and then, gently, the falling to earth of the human ash that is all that physically remains of the Roma victims. Unspeakable.

One aspect of the work that guarantees its appeal and accessibility to audiences far wider than usual for “new” music is its plethora of beautiful and memorable tunes, often clothed in exquisite, delicate chamber sonorities and tonal harmonies. Just one of these is a direct quotation of a principal theme from the Imagined Memories quartet, in addition to two striking melodies that occur in Vista (Part III). One, a majestic Litany, is set to Polish words, breathing new hope; the other, the final melody of the piece, is presented in French (Je vous vends mes larmes/I’ll sell you my tears.). Not to mention the Totentanz theme from Part II), so devastating in both its initial, simple melodic guise and then, through its subsequent frenetic contrapuntal treatment, both exhausting and oddly exhilarating.

Lee has already referred to Christoph Filler’s powerful declamation of the opening text: (Madre del alma Nací Gitano/Mother of my soul, Romani I am), as a kind of call to prayer, a guttural Ur-cry in the Cante jondo (“deep song”) vocal style of flamenco music. This finds ultimate fulfillment in Part III, its reappearance providing powerful closure akin to the reappearance of a closing ritornello in a great Baroque or Classical concerto, thereby unifying the entire nearly seventy-minute work. Or, perhaps it evokes the reappearance of the Aria at the end of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

And what did the BC audience make of all this? Again, I recall (as I did for my students, who made up a substantial section of the audience) the reaction in 1824 in Vienna at the debut of the Ninth Symphony. The profoundly deaf Beethoven, still conducting the musicians, though the work had concluded, had to be shown (by a singer in the chorus) the audience on its feet applauding wildly. In Gasson, after the final iteration of the “love” theme, eerily whistled by the two singers, which recalled the secret code that was used in the camps between Roma inmates as a sign of recognition, forbidden to otherwise communicate by their captors, in the ensuing silence the audience remained seated, as if dazed: in another place entirely. After what seemed like half a minute or more, I (knowing that the work had concluded) initiated gentle applause, which then spread throughout the auditorium, the audience awakening again to present reality and rising as one to its feet to give prolonged, ecstatic acknowledgement of musicians and composer alike. I believe that part of this applause, heartfelt in its intensity and duration, was reserved for the Roma and for the epic of their Long Road.

Peter Watchorn is an Australian harpsichordist, writer, teacher, harpsichord-designer and builder, who resides in Cambridge, MA. He is also a recording producer and the president and co-founder of Musica Omnia, Inc., an internationally famous classical CD label.

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  1. After reading both reviews I found the piece on Spotify and listened. I agree with everything written about it.

    Comment by Rich Carle — April 10, 2024 at 6:52 pm

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