NY Philharmonic’s American Tryptic, Culminating in Julia Wolfe’s Compelling Fire in my mouth

United StatesUnited States Stucky, Copland, Wolfe: Anthony McGill (clarinet), The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus of New York City, New York Philharmonic / Jaap van Zweden (conductor), David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 25.1.2019. (RP)

Jaap van Zweden conductng the NY Philharmonic & The Crossing (c) Chris Lee

Stucky – ‘Elegy’ from August 4, 1964
Copland – Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra with Harp and Piano
Wolfe Fire in my mouth (World Premiere)

New Co-Production: New York Philharmonic; Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley; Krannert Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; and the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Director – Anne Kauffman
Sound – Mark Grey
Video, Lighting and Scenic Design – Jeff Sugg
Costumes – Márion Talán
Artistic Director, The Crossing – Donald Nall
Director, Young People’s Chorus of New York City – Francisco J. Núñez

Few events are seared into New York City’s psyche as is the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which killed 123 women and 23 men. Most of the victims were recent immigrants to the US; the majority were Italian and Jewish women ranging in age from 14 to 43, many under the age of 23. Unable to escape because the doors of the building were locked to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks and stealing, they were consumed by the flames, died of smoke inhalation or leaped to their deaths to escape the inferno. The building still stands in Greenwich Village.

It is the subject of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth which received its world premiere this past week by The Crossing, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and the New York Philharmonic. Jaap van Zweden, who is midway through his first season as the orchestra’s music director, conducted the multimedia oratorio which brought the packed house to its feet. (I attended the second of the three performances.)

The title comes from the words of a young woman who, along with her coworkers, calmly walked out of the factory that stood between her and starvation with a fire in her mouth, outraged over the intolerable working conditions. It, like the other texts that Wolfe selected or wrote, was simple, pure and lyrical. They told of the hopes of immigrants as they crossed the ocean, the pride they took in their work, their aspirations to be an American, and included speeches by labor rights activists and first-hand accounts of the fire. The most harrowing of the latter were the words of a reporter who witnessed a young couple embrace, kiss and then jump.

Much of the text was set in a minimalist style with words and syllables repeated over and over. The tension created in such passages was incredible. There was also fine choral writing in a more traditional vein, such as for a speech by Rose Schneiderman made just days after the fire in which she refuses to speak of fellowship to a public that she has found wanting, lest she betray those ‘poor, burned bodies’.

The music was the eclectic mix for which Wolfe is known. It can be transparent and light or massive and threatening, but always in service of the text. She’s a superb orchestral colorist; the score is replete with the swirl of harps, the blaze of brasses and effects such as the delicate ringing of sleigh bells. During the third section with its songs of protest, the chorus wielded scissors that made a menacing swooshing sound as they sliced through the air. The work ends with a death knoll, followed by the choir intoning the names of those who perished in the fire.

The 146 singers were all women of the same ages – young and just a bit older – as those who worked and died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Commitment shone in their faces, was heard in their voices and was evidenced by their every movement. They believed in Wolfe’s creation, and the audience was inspired by it.

The concert was part of a series of performances that build on the New York Philharmonic’s legacy as New York City’s orchestra with works exploring the immigrant experience. The two shorter works that came before Fire in My Mouth were equally compelling, resonating with the same sense of purpose and rooted in American history.

Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was an American composer and educator who had a long association with the New York Philharmonic and taught at Juilliard. ’Elegy’ is a seven-minute interlude from August 4, 1964, an oratorio commissioned in 2008 by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) in honor of the centennial of the birth of the 36th US President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Van Zweden conducted the Dallas premiere and subsequently performed it with the DSO at Carnegie Hall in 2011.

Stucky wrote that the principal motive of ‘Elegy’, a descending combination of notes, exhales grief. The interlude explores the impact of two events that took place on that date, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the early days of the Vietnam War and the discovery of the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers in Mississippi. Van Zweden instilled the short piece, which begins with a drum roll and ends with a sigh, with a stillness and spaciousness that underscore the pensive mood and anguish pervading it.

Copland, the quintessential twentieth-century American composer, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. (The surname was anglicized from Kaplan to Copland either in Scotland or upon entry to the US at Ellis Island.) He was deemed by Leonard Bernstein ‘the best we’ve got’. Listening to Anthony McGill, the New York Philharmonic’s Principal Clarinetist, perform his Clarinet Concerto, I couldn’t help but think Copland’s friend and colleague had underestimated him.

Composed in 1948 while Copland was in South America, the concerto was commissioned by bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman. Scored for solo clarinet, strings, harp and piano, the two-movement work is a mix of the composer at his most lyrical and jazziest, fused together by a virtuoso showpiece of a cadenza for the soloist. What a showman McGill is, but oh so elegant. His musicianship and tone are simply amazing, and the orchestra responded in kind to create a performance that was sublime. I will remember it always.

Rick Perdian

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