Music Review: Immigrant Composers are the Dreamers at Alias’ ‘Unbounded Creativity’ Concert

On Tuesday Feb.6 in Ingram Hall at the Blair School of Music, the local troupe of virtuoso classical musicians the Alias Chamber Ensemble presented a concert with a most uncreative title. The program was called “Unbounded Creativity,” which was a little like calling Albert Einstein very smart – it was true but unhelpful in explaining why the artists’ work was worth our attention. Yet the concert did have a unifying theme. All the music was by immigrant composers, whose geographical ping-ponging eventually landed them in the United States.  Poetry by immigrant, native-born, and indigenous authors was read aloud between musical works. Luckily the music, poetry, and presentation of the evening were thoughtfully curated, and I will forgive the titular oversight.

The evening began with three selections from Bright Sheng’s set of solo cello pieces Seven Tunes Heard in China performed by the masterful Christopher Stenstrom. It was a warm and hearty welcome into the concert.  The folkish tunes, repurposed for the concert stage, run the gamut of everything the cello can do. The first selection, “Seasons,” showed off the vocal quality for which it has a reputation.  Singing lines moved swiftly between keys, folding mesmerizingly into one another.  Next came “The Drunken Fisherman,” in which, recalling the sound of the qin (a seven-stringed Chinese zither), every note was plucked.  All the stages of intoxication were vividly rendered as the mood passed through contemplation, dullness, and bellicosity.  In the last piece the solo-line cello transformed into a one-man band. “Tibetan Dance” required Stenstrom to simultaneously juggle melodies, basslines, and percussion.  This growth from single voice to orchestra over the course of Seven Tunes was a natural segue to the arrival of the first ensemble onstage, an unusual octet, and what they played was utterly baffling.

Composer Yotam Haber calls his Estro Poetico-armonico for combined string quartet and recorder quartet a “transcription of a transcription.”  It is a reworking of the Baroque composer Benedetto Marcello’s impressions of the music heard in Venetian synagogues.  Haber’s music sounded ancient, and as alien to my ears as the Top 40 would to Marcello if he woke up to find himself in the year 2018.  The composer’s large inventory of extended techniques was put on display by the strings.  They hardly sounded like themselves, favoring instead the sound of birdcalls, animal noises, and human speech.  The tooting recorders would have been funny if not for the rhetorical impact of their dreadfully insistent and repetitive lines.  Estro Poetico-armonico certainly captured the weirdness of being transplanted to a new land, or a new time.

Itinerant confusion was the focal point of the following piece.  In Mohammed Fairouz’s Refugee Blues, a setting for mezzo-soprano and piano of the eponymous poem by W.H. Auden, the muted instrumental imitation of singing employed in the first two pieces finally gave way to the thing itself.  My beef with this piece has nothing to do with its placement in the concert order or the quality of the performance.  In fact, pianist Melissa Rose and mezzo-soprano Gayle Shay, both of whom are esteemed Blair faculty, played and sang with great artistry and conscientiousness.  Rather, I’m peeved the music exists in the first place.

Auden’s poetry already bursts with song and there is little reason to stuff it further.  The rhymes, the repetition, and the world-weariness in this meditation on refugees in Europe on the eve of World War Two are blues enough.  What could possibly be added?  Fairouz bends the poem to fit his Broadway-redolent schema.  He undermines the unrelenting struggle described in the poem by avoiding all musical repetition.  Nothing in the music sticks with the listener once it has ended.  Every instance of word painting is extremely heavy handed.  The poetry is not allowed to speak for itself as the mezzo is made to scream words like “banged,” “dead,” and “they must die.”

Simplicity and transparency are key to the poem’s power, and to the blues as an art form. Auden is not afraid to name the poem’s main players (among them Jewish refugees, bureaucrats, and Hitler himself).  His verses are revolutionary in their indictment of both the places people left and the lands where they settled.  Why push this clarity and gravitas into obviousness with clichéd text setting?  The music attempts to beat the poetry at its own game, and it loses.

The song was flanked by weighty and thought-provoking readings of poetry by Warsan Shire and Natasha Trethewey. Auden’s Refugee Blues would have meant more if it were read aloud as these were.

From old poetry followed old music, as the Blair School’s Claudius String Quartet took on Valse (1908) by Béla Bartók.  The undergraduate ensemble owned the tricky piece with their energetic and vibrant playing.  Different rhythmic patterns were built and toppled over in dizzying succession, but the dancing never stopped.

What came next was disappointing after the Claudius Quartet set the bar so high.  The engaging and musical Vox Grata Women’s Choir, led by conductors Susan Kelly and Jeanette MacCallum, performed two innocuous pieces by the Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo.  The first, Ave Generosa, is a setting of an overtly religious Latin text by the mystical Medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen.  The poetry set in the second, Tundra, depicts the austere natural beauty of Norway and was written specifically for the piece.  The texts could not be more different, and yet, save for the addition of piano and a string quartet in the latter, their music was indistinguishable.  Words are swapped out and the music remains as bland and soulless as ever, full of easy harmonies and predictable ebbs and flows.  The pieces are devoid of conflict, and therefore of interest. There is no sense of adventure. This is no fault of Vox Grata, whose shimmering sound was still wonderful.

Gabriela Lena Frank saved the concert’s theme from total derailment at the hands of Gjeilo.  Her arrangement of Irving Berlin’s inescapable anthem of refugee gratitude, God Bless America, for countertenor and string quartet, was the evening’s highlight.  Berlin was an American icon born on foreign soil.  As a small child his Jewish family fled the Russian empire, presumably to escape the tightening grip of violent anti-Semitism in Europe.  Mere decades later, the contemporaneous composer Jerome Kern would say of Berlin, “He has no place in American music. He is American music!”

The soprano voice emanating from the masculine figure of the countertenor was jarring.  The powerhouse singer Patrick Dailey delivered the lines tenderly.  Under this genuine tone of affection also lay a spirit of mockery.  It’s not a stretch to say that this disconnect mirrored other more public and consequential divisions, between the desire to love one’s country and the constant frustration and division of political life.  The nation that adopted Berlin still has a spotty track record of welcoming in the oppressed.  Frank’s arrangement includes a repetition of the original text, sung in Spanish, as if to say that language does not define “Americanness.” The concert-closing performance was altogether magnificent, and the audience responded with palpable awe.

In some ways the concert was undeniably bound.  All the works, except for Frank’s arrangement, were by men.  Why was a stocking-stuffer composer like Gjeilo programmed when there is no shortage of far more innovative foreign-born composers who aren’t men?  Why not perform brilliant music by the likes of Wu Fei, a Chinese-born Nashville-based composer?  Gabriela Lena Frank was born in the United States, but heck, why not perform some of her eclectic original work?  The music on this concert was mostly by living composers, the subject matter is controversial, and the ensemble even went so far as to have postcards ready in the lobby of Ingram Hall so concertgoers could write letters to their senators.  It was also an evening of celebration, benefiting Alias’ community outreach programs.  Some molds of the typical chamber music concert were broken.  And yet so much was fettered by unproductive norms.

The composers and poets whose work was presented are, too, bound.  There are ties which cannot be broken to countries lost, lands adopted, and cultures preserved.  For every featured artist these connections, these bindings, are a central generative source of their art.  It’s hard to admit that we are not so free in the mind as we think we are, but in the end, that may not be such a bad thing.

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About Lila Meretzky

Lila Meretzky is a composer from New York City, currently in her sophomore year at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music. She also studies German, and is president of the Blair Composers Forum. Her other musical pursuits include conducting, singing, and playing piano and oboe. Lila is a voracious reader, and once had to dump out an entire backpack full of books while going through security at LaGuardia Airport.


  1. MItchell Handel says:

    fascinating review, intriguing discussion of when to set poetry to music.

  2. “…peeved the music exists in the first place.” Why on earth would this ever be a statement from anyone who was raised as a civilized human being? It’s the one sentence in your “review” that crosses the line from sour to destructively abusive. You’re peeved that a work of art exists? And the worst part is that you are not a major outlet which means that you don’t see the ego of someone who has an opinion that won’t be widely read being peeved that something exists just because you didn’t like it. It’s indicative of a bigger problem in our culture which is why I feel compelled to comment. I found the work on Naxos. If you decide to do this more often, I’d appreciate a more conscientious review and not a hateful invective. Thank goodness I can listen to the music and make my own assessment. If you write about the music itself and the art rather than your feelings, you might go from being a writer in a small corner to one who some people might start caring about. Earn it.