Thursday, November 11, 2010


We never know who will basically disappear from our lives and then reappear when we least expect it.  In looking over calendars of upcoming musical events my eyes lit up as I saw a CD release event for composer Meira Warshauer.  Ms. Warshauer had given a wonderful residency at Meredith College where I taught for many years and I had sort of kept up with her through her newsletter that I received from time to time.  I simply had to attend this event, which took place in a small recital at the Kaufman Center on W. 67th St.

I remembered that Ms. Warshauer's music was almost always the product of an idea or concept she cared about deeply. While she certainly has great command of the "nuts and bolts" of composing, especially for orchestra (though I am sure she would agree this part is never easy or second nature), it is the creative aspect of her work that would naturally be of the greatest interest to an audience.

The two works on this, the composer's second orchestral CD were prompted by her passionate and compassionate interest in our planet.  In her comments she noted that both the establishment of Earth Day and the ever-growing concerns about global warming had heightened her concerns and led her to speak to these issues through her music.

Her Symphony No. 1, Living Breathing Earth, was completed in 2007.  The first three movements revolve around the land, the water, and the sky (or atmosphere). The first movement, "Cicadas," celebrates the diversity and fecundity of the planet.  The sound of the cicada, so prominent at certain times, serves as the "seed" for the first movement.  A shaker recreates the buzzing sound of the masses of cicadas and other instruments play off the  cicada sound.  This is one of many examples where the composer takes a natural aural experience in her head and then figures out how to replicate the sound and expand on it with traditional instruments.

For the second movement, "Tahuayo River at Night," the composer reflects on her experience of traveling along this tributary of the Peruvian Amazon.  This rainforest region, home to the greatest diversity of species on earth, represents the earth at its most natural and its fullest.  In her comments on the sounds she experienced as the boat glided through the water, the sounds of the natural world and the peaceful regularity of the oars plying the water enveloped her.  A sustained accordion-like sound reflects the "lungs of the earth" that are the rainforests.

In movement three, "Wings in Flight,"  the sight of swirls of yellow butterflies flying over her while she was in Peru filled her with energy.  The composer has the wonderful ability to translate a sensation creates in one mode into the medium of musical sound.  As every fine composer does, she latches onto to extraordinary moments to lift her music above the mundane.  And her goal is not merely pictorial or descriptive, it is sensory.

The final, culminating movement, "Living, Breathing Earth,"  focuses on the act of breathing.  The composer noted that while we often take the inhalation and exhalation for granted, it is a basic process to all species. In the act of breathing, there is often a lingering after we inhale before we exhalation.  Therefore, the movement is cast in 5/4 time, 12345.  As she made her comments and demonstrated my thoughts turned to the Andean region of Peru whose elevation makes breathing quite arduous.  There is no taking breathing for granted at those altitudes!

Although related to the same basic theme, Tekeeyah (a call) has a different, but no less intriguing, back story.  In many, if not most cultures and religious traditions, there is some central sound that takes people to a different place.  This can happen even if the person listening is not a part of the tradition, it is that strong.  In the world of the American Indian it is the drum; for Andean Indians, the panpipe; in the Jewish tradition, the shofar.  Traditionally, the shofar is an instrument made from a ramshorn but the horns or other animals are also used.  The sounding of the shofar "awakes the soul."

It was then quite natural for composer Warshauer to use the shofar as the central instrument for this work  to awaken "our inner truth" and renew "connection to the earth and to each other."  I find it interesting that she chose the format of the concerto in that the word implies both singling out an instrument but also promoting cooperation (a concerted effort).

The shofar only needs a single note to get our attention but the composer was curious as to its expanded range of sounds and articulations.  Fortunately, she found in trombonist Haim Avitsur both the ability and curiosity to work with her.  Gradually, he discovered ways to play different tones, adapts brass techniques to develop articulations, and create dynamic flexibility.  At the discussion, Mr. Avitsur demonstrated the different kinds of sounds he learned how to produce and how he manages to coax the sounds from the horn.

Each movement of the work represents a step from "awakening" to action to triumph.  As with the symphony, the composer begins with an aural vision and then discovers the means of bringing the vision to life.  I was especially taken with the second movement, "Breaking Walls," which conveys the idea of plowing the earth, an earth that might sometimes be rocky and resistant.  The dissonant, abrasive sounds underscore the challenges of responding to "the call."  I think that for Ms. Warshauer, the underlying message is not one of "control" or "subduing" as much as it is breaking through to the true potential of the endeavor, with the plowing of the rocky earth being the metaphor. 

The themes reflected on in these works are not new or isolated in her work.  They represent a continuation of both passion and sensitivity to our planet and its environment. 

Hearing Ms. Warshauer's comments so beautifully demonstrated by a violinist whose name I did not write down, Mr. Avitsur on the shofar and trombone, Ms. Warshauer at the piano, and audio clips of the orchestra recording created a marvelous introduction to this work.   It is to be hoped that the CD finds great success and that there will be many live performances of these works in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment