CMA Thinker
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CMA Thinker

Music for the Times We’re In

By Tom Welsh, CMA’s Director of Performing Arts and Donald Nally, Conductor of The Crossing

For many, sunflowers bring to mind happiness and growth — the flowers are unique in the fact that they turn their heads to face the sun. The sunflower is also the national flower of Ukraine. Due to the course of current events, this flower has become a global symbol of resistance, unity, and hope. Here, unlike most of Georgia O’Keeffe’s close-up images of flowers, Sunflower, New Mexico, I appears in a landscape environment, with bloom, stem, and leaves framed against a bright blue sky.

With the connotations of sunflowers in mind, the upcoming performance at the CMA by The Crossing takes on a new layer of meaning. The Grammy-winning chamber choir, conducted by Donald Nally, is committed to working with creative teams to make and record new, substantial works for choir that explore and expand ways of writing, singing, and listening to music for choir. Many of The Crossing’s nearly 110 commissioned premieres address social, environmental, and political issues. In these times, music written to unify and bring people together seems apt.

The group’s Cleveland debut includes works for choir and organ by three artists: the world premiere of “In a House Besieged” by Stacy Garrop, commissioned by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Musart Society in memory of Robert G. Schneider; and pieces by Lansing McLoskey and Arvo Pärt.

Below, Donald Nally, conductor of The Crossing, shares his thoughts and notes for an in-depth look into the upcoming musical experience.

On “In a House Besieged”

“In a House Besieged” transforms a short story by Lydia Davis into a musical performance to reflect fear and anxiety around the aging process.

The front page of the morning newspaper from March 3, features a photo of an elderly woman in Ukraine being helped across a pile of rubble by a middle-aged man. Perhaps he is her son? Or someone she doesn’t know? Or someone related to her that she no longer remembers? In the photo, she looks confused.

The photo becomes music in my head. It is brooding music. Cloudy. Prayerful.

Ever since Rob Maggio’s The Woman Where We Are Living, I have wanted to make another piece about aging. The topic is relevant to me, not just because I am living it, but also because I have seen the hell aging can ravage on those I love. When I was asked to commission a work for The Crossing that honors the life and work of beloved organist and choir director Robert Schneider — and that the new work appropriately feature the museum’s rather hidden yet fantastic pipe organ in Gartner Auditorium — it occurred to me that this was an opportunity to make such a piece.

The organ: ancient, unwieldy, strong, sacred, historic.

Each organ has so many stories to tell. The instrument’s history is collectively formed by those invited to sit at its bench. The organ is a wonderfully strange choice for a secular piece about disintegrating worlds.

The upcoming concert was the perfect chance to make a new piece for our friend and long-time resident organist, Scott Dettra, original collaborative keyboardist at The Crossing.

The group has wanted to work with composer Stacy Garrop for some time. As friends, we’ve watched her ceaseless energy as she meets the demands of an increasingly full commission calendar with ever-evolving creativity. She often writes (with confident expertise) for choir, and she is the type of composer that will learn an unfamiliar instrument as if she were a virtuoso player. I called her and suggested we make a piece for choir and organ on Lydia Davis’s writings.

Then I sent her a large pile of brief essays in which Lydia Davis, one of the great literary voices of our time, writes about aging from the perspective of those who are aging, through metaphor, or as observation.

In doing so, I though about the world as it appears in recent newspapers. The Ukrainian woman, nearly 5000 miles away, in a photo. I thought about understanding through observation, about tragic stories unfolding while we sleep to become allegories over morning coffee.

Garrop understood my messy pile of suggested texts. From it, she fashioned a libretto that focuses on Davis’s allegorical use of domestic life. In Davis’s stories, houses crumble, roads crack, the floorboards separate, and clay squeezes up between them.

“Now we have moved into the upper rooms of the house and stand at the window watching the fish flash through the branches of our peach tree. An eel looks out from below our wheelbarrow.”

—Lydia Davis, A Natural Disaster as heard in “In a House Besieged”

The centerpiece of “In a House Besieged” is drawn from Davis’s book Almost No Memory, a study in aloneness. Garrop’s response is an important work, crafted with care and insight, that musically describes an experience familiar to anyone who has experiences or witnessed elderliness. It reflects changes that are frightening in the blizzard of dementia, decaying memories.

“She likes to lie and watch the darkness come down into the woods,though tonight, as sometimes before, she does not really watch,or though her eyes rest on the darkening woods, she is not so much watching as waiting, and often, now, feels she is waiting.”

— Lydia Davis, Almost No Memory as heard in “In a House Besieged”

On “The Memory of Rain”

Memory, experience, and ritual tie our program together. Memory also plays a leading role in the musical piece by Lansing McLosky’s titled “The Memory of Rain.” The theme arises in the Philip Levine poem by whichthe piece was inspired, wherein a speaker considers (unapprovingly) the knowledge carried by clouds as they look down on a warring, decaying world and do nothing.

“The clouds go on eating oil, cigars,/ housewives, sighing letters,/ the breath of lies. In their great silent pockets/ they carry off all our dead.”

— Philip Levine, “Clouds” as heard in “The Memory of Rain”

McLosky’s compositional vocabulary is perfectly suited to Levine’s words; he creates worlds of uncertainty, of anger and expectation, of the need for decision-making. It is the music of democracy, of shifting scenarios, and of a desire for something better that lies just out of reach. His harmonic impulses are unresolved; they hold tension. They embrace and then obscure understanding; they touch our memories in unstable ways.

Are things as they seem?

Though written over ten years ago (for The Month of Moderns 2010 and to feature Scott Dettra), “The Memory of Rain” compliments Garrop’s “In a House Besieged.”

These are works of memory. And they meet The Crossing’s mission to create a record of our time.

We were here; this is what it felt like to be here.
The woman in the photo is under a gray cover of clouds.
The sun is not hers today. Even if available, she cannot look up.
She does not have that luxury.
Her steps become metaphor.

When I programmed this concert, I did not realize that the work closing Act I, a work from Estonia, would have any more meaning than the words of its prayer. It was primarily chosen to fill out the concert with a revered Baltic composer familiar with choirs and organs. Yet the woman in the newspaper photo would have been a neighbor to Estonians; her fear could soon be theirs. They are connected through geography and history.

This is the beauty and misfortune of timing and programming: the way in which the resonance of any given work can change overnight by the appearance of a photo in the newspaper.

On “The Memory of Rain”

So the program’s climax in Arvo Pärt’s Salve Regina carries new meaning.

“Turn your merciful eyes toward us.”

— Ancient Marion hymn as heard in Arvo Pärt’s Salve Regina

This is a cry for help in an otherwise placid prayer setting. Perspective. Eyes. The words that silently form in our minds in response to what we’ve seen and what clouds see.

Memory. Decay. Hope. Supplication.

Words become prayers in a world of evolving meanings.

The houses are angry because they’re watched.
A soldier wants to talk with God
but his mouth fills with lost tags.

The clouds have seen it all, in the dark
they pass over the graves of the forgotten
and they don’t cry or whisper.

They should be punished every morning,
they should be bitten and boiled like spoons.

Philip Levine, “Clouds”

Purchase tickets to The Crossing in concert on Friday, March 25. Interested in learning more about upcoming performances of the 2022 Performing Arts series? Visit the CMA website for more.

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