Program Notes for Miró Quartet & Soprano Karen Slack by Philip Carlsen

Notes on the Program

Notes written and voiced by Philip Carlsen

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There has been much chamber music written in the past century for solo singer with mixed instrumental ensemble of winds and strings, sometimes also including keyboard or percussion. Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire and George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children are prominent examples. Much less common, however, are works that combine voice with the standard string quartet. Just such a piece, the powerful Terezín Ghetto Requiem by Czech composer Sylvie Bodorová, serves as the centerpiece of this concert collaboration between the Miró Quartet and Karen Slack. They have filled out the rest of their program with music by African American and women composers, including new string quartet arrangements of the original piano accompaniments for songs by William Grant Still and Margaret Bonds. Nestled among the vocal pieces are short, individual movements from three separate string quartets. The result is a program that is compact and satisfying, with many intriguing resonances among its different parts.

Terezín, or Theresienstadt, a Czech city about 45 miles north of Prague, was commandeered in 1941 by the Nazis and turned into a walled internment ghetto for Jews from Czechoslovakia and other countries in north central Europe—essentially a holding camp for the prisoners before they were put on trains for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The camp was overcrowded, unsanitary, and rife with disease and malnutrition. Even under the appalling conditions, however, the inmates asserted their humanity through an astonishing range of artistic and educational activities.  A highlight was sixteen performances of the Verdi Requiem, organized, rehearsed, and conducted by the composer Rafael Schächter. One can only imagine the feelings of the participants, who surely realized they were singing their own requiem.

Half a century later, inspired by those Verdi performances, Bodorová memorialized the victims of the Holocaust in her Terezín Ghetto Requiem. Written on commission for the 1998 Warwick and Leamington Festival, the piece is a condensed version of a requiem mass, in just three sections: Lacrymosa (Weeping), Dies irae (Day of Wrath), and Libera me (Deliver Me). For the vocal part, Bodorová employs fragments of the traditional Latin liturgy alongside Hebrew prayers, “juxtaposed,” as she says, “to represent the two cultures.” The text of the first movement is “Shema Yisrael” (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God … He is our Deliverer …”), sung in the style of a synagogue cantor, devotional, rhythmically free and ornamented. The instrumental material is spare, generally staying close to C minor or F minor, a harmonic confinement that suggests the bleak surroundings of the concentration camp. There is a numbness to the quartet’s opening bars, leading to the long, imitative core of the movement, quite independent of the voice, based on Verdi’s original Lacrimosa melody.

The second movement is aggressive and terrifying, dissonant and rhythmically unsettled, as the singer declaims the Latin text describing God’s Day of Wrath. When the intensity becomes almost unbearable, she cries out in Hebrew for redemption, “Gael, gael Yisrael!,” and the music resolves triumphantly on a C major chord. The last movement progresses from a bleak C minor opening, interrupted briefly by a reminder of the Dies irae, to a tranquil ending in C major, a prayer for eternal rest.

The perfect counterpart to the Bodorová, serving as a redemptive finale for the concert, is the other large piece on the program, Margaret Bonds’s Five Creek-Freedman Spirituals, a piece which draws on the music of those other concentration camps, the slave plantations of the ante-bellum American South. Bonds was a brilliant pianist and prolific song composer, sought after by many recitalists and opera singers. In addition to her original compositions, she wrote arrangements of traditional Black spirituals that reveal her total mastery of the language of jazz, blues, and classical music, and her ability to craft accompaniments that perfectly support the vocal lines, even as they surprise and delight with their twists of harmony and syncopation. For this set, Bonds chose spirituals that underscore their power to bring joy to the downtrodden (“My soul’s so happy, Lord, I can’t sit down.”); to squarely face the inhumanity of slavery (“The moon run down in a purple stream, the sun refused to shine, and all the stars disappeared.”); to engage in some ribald fun (“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones rise together in the morning.”); to weep tears of sorrow (“Lord, I can’t keep from cryin’ some time.”); and to praise the Lord for his promise of a better life in this world or the next (“He healed the sick and raised the dead, Yes, he did, Yes, he did … And He brought joy, joy, joy to my soul.”)

The other vocal set on this program, William Grant Still’s Songs of Separation, was written in 1949, just three years after the Creek-Freedman Spirituals, but it inhabits a more contemporary, urbane, secular world. For the lyrics of these songs, Still chose poems by five important Black poets: the great Paul Laurence Dunbar, who lived at the end of the nineteenth century; the Haitian Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, whose poetic language was French; and three poets closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance: Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. The songs offer five different takes on the pain of love spurned or lost, with Still’s music deftly guiding the listener through the welter of emotions underlying the texts. In Bontemps’s “Idolatry,” the singer cries out “I will build a chapel in the place where our love died” and then resolves, against the mournful tread of the accompaniment, to “set an old bell tolling on the air.” The Thoby-Marcelin song, “Poème,” is rapturous and dreamy, set in the hour before dawn, with a solitary soul sighing “I took my head in my hands and thought of you.” Dunbar’s “Parted” is a quick, welcome comic interlude: “We wed and parted on her complaint, / And both were a bit of barter, / Tho’ I’ll confess that I’m no saint, / I’ll swear that she’s no martyr.” The next song, based on Cullen’s “If You Should Go,” is a gently rocking lullaby, wistful and tender: “Love, leave me like the light.” Still concludes this set with an operatic showpiece, a setting of Hughes’s “I am a Black Pierrot” that makes the most of the poem’s commedia dell’arte melodrama—“I wept until the red dawn dripped blood over the eastern hills / and my heart was bleeding too”—while also bringing out a subtext that recalls Louis Armstrong’s “What did I do to be so black and blue?”

The three string quartet movements, lovely on their own, take on an additional role in this concert as preludes and connectors for the vocal pieces. The passionate 1896 quartet by Venezuelan piano virtuoso Teresa Carreño sets the emotional tone for the rest of the concert and leads naturally into the high drama of Songs of Separation. Following that set is one of Florence Price’s juba dances, a form she also used in her symphonies, like a substitute for the traditional scherzo. Its character is lighthearted, very much influenced by ragtime. How appropriate that Price should directly follow Still on this concert: both were pioneers in the progress of African American classical musicians, Still being the first to have a work played by a professional orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931, and Price being the first Black woman to achieve the same honor, two years later in a performance by the Chicago Symphony. George Walker’s Lyric for Strings provides a serene interlude between the emotional intensity—of very different kinds!—in the works by Bodorová and Bonds. Walker, also a piano virtuoso, wrote this piece in 1946 when he was a graduate student at the Curtis Institute of Music. It was originally the second movement of his string quartet, but in its version for string orchestra, debuted in a concert by the Curtis orchestra, it went on to become one of Walker’s most performed compositions.


The Miró Quartet & Soprano Karen Slack perform Saturday, March 18, 2022 at 3PM at Hannaford Hall on the USM Campus in Portland.
Click here for information and tickets.