How the Coronavirus lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests led to Bernstein’s “Songfest” in Berlin

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As an American conductor living and working in Europe, the 2020 Coronavirus lockdown provided me with an extraordinary amount of time for research, study and reflection. On March 16th of 2020, my upcoming ten performances at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm were cancelled and I flew home to Berlin and began the long campaign to beat the pandemic with the rest of Germany.

We all know how the next weeks went. First times wearing a mask in the grocery store, red lettering on the floor suggesting to keep distance, “Abstand 1.5 meter”, stocking up on every variety of pasta, and six week wait times for a box of blue masks from Amazon. This was all part of the lockdown’s new normal. The biggest change for me was that suddenly I was at home with my wife and our two young boys all the time, literally 24/7. No music making, no conducting, not much income, I was simply at home, our little American family in Berlin.

We found ourselves quite fortunate. I was talking with my agents in Vienna, Copenhagen and Paris, all of whom were very helpful and supportive. Orchestras and opera companies were cancelling, some were paying 25%, thankfully everyone was rescheduling. My wife Meghan and I got through the first few weeks, we organized trips to open fields to play with the boys, we kept track of our spending, and we watched far too many news programs. By the time later April rolled around, it was all becoming a good bit ordinary. The German government seemed to have a good plan, and I started returning to my nearby studio, to study music and to network with composer and soloist friends in Europe and back in the states. I remember so many great Zoom calls with musician friends including Vadim Gluzman, David T. Little, Avner Dorman, Elizabeth Blaufox, Howard Pollack, Michael Shapiro, and many others. There was time to connect!

In early May, I somehow thought to listen to Bernstein’s Songfest again after several years away from the score. It was a work that my friend and artistic advisor Craig Urquhart had reminded me of on occasion. Songfest is a work not often performed and not particularly famous, yet it’s full of wonderful music and poetry. It so happens that Songfest works very well for European opera companies as it requires six operatic singers of which these companies usually employ. Additionally, the work includes the words of eleven great American poets including Gertrude Stein, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. Somehow Bernstein’s work fit with the other American works I was focused on at the time, Anthony Davis’s Central Park Five, David T. Little’s Dog Days, John Adams’ Nixon in China, and the concert works of Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Charles Ives. I had found time and I was digging deep into these works. For me this was an amazing two-month period, my mind was open, I felt especially creative, and Berlin’s spring skies could not have been bluer!

Then the struggle of real life and that of being an American began to weigh on me. In late May with the death of George Floyd, a fellow Houstonian, I began to recognize the importance of the moment, the importance to stand up against racism. I was encouraged to see the growing acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement by more white Americans. It was exciting to think that perhaps this time, things could change for the better in regards to racial equality. For me it was a recognition that the work of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement simply hadn’t come to a conclusion and that this was the continuation of that great struggle for needed change and understanding.

I had remembered from my earlier listening that Bernstein’s Songfest dealt strongly with racial injustice, especially with the fifth movement that includes the two poems I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes and Okay “Negroes” by June Jordan. While researching on the website of Bernstein’s publisher Boosey & Hawkes, I happened to notice that there was a two-piano version of the work. This new bit of information leapt off the computer screen at me as it seemed to offer the chance to perform the work in Corona times. I also recognized that my colleague, the Puerto Rican soprano Meechot Marrero, who I had shared a Radio Orchestra Berlin Bernstein Gala with the season prior, and who is a star soprano of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, had recently suggested that she has been wanting to sing Julia de Burgos from Songfest. That’s where the stars aligned and the idea sprung to life! Two pianists, 6 singers, myself as artistic director, this was the type of small ensemble that could perform in the midst of Germany’s social distancing regulations.

Here in Berlin we have an extensive community of world-class singers, many of whom are friends from engagements together over the years. Thankfully we have developed good friendships and when I began discussing the casting with Tim Ribchester, our pianist and lead coach, we decided to reach out to our best contacts. We were very happy to learn that in this special Coronavirus period, without guarantee of payment, everyone was excited to jump on board and for most it would be their first performance since March.

Bernstein’s Songfest is a modern and fresh work for today. Our first performance, socially distanced, will take place in Berlin’s Theater im Delphi on September 21, 2020. The performance will begin with a simple poetry reading in German and English. My hope is that this timely work, full of such great music will help bring people together in this incredibly difficult period. Stay tuned for further American music initiatives here in the coming months!

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Garrett Keast is a Berlin — based conductor, recognized for his vast repertoire experience, and particularly for his exceptional focus on American repertoire.

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