Stirred by Spoken, not Sung

I would not call the event on February 2nd at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan an open rehearsal. There were no live instruments except an autobiographic violin solo, a sample melody on the piano, and a speaking part played by the composer. It was more of a conversation, an extension of a conversation that began between the composer (Daniel Barnard Roumain, aka DBR), a rabbi (Joy Levitt), a librettist (Margaret Lynch), and a program director (Jenny Levison). DBR is a current artist-in-residence at JCC in Manhattan, where he has been working on a piece based on the Passover Haggadah that was co-commissioned by the University of Maryland and the JCC in Manhattan. In the process, this quartet of collaborators has haggled over balancing pain and joy and has wrestled with representing relationships between parents and children. Their conversation led to what Lynch, present at the event through Skype, described as “a meeting of his (DBR’s) story and hers (Rabbi Levitt’s) and the story of Passover.” The composer is a father learning to honor the complex heritage of his Jewish-Haitian-biracial-American son. The rabbi is a Haggadah editor whose father’s recent death amplified his words at her past Passover seders. Once she was a child who asked at least one of the four questions that Lynch poetically infuses with hope at the conclusion of this work’s libretto.

For the small audience at the event, DBR shared the background of the piece and gave a preview of the performance. He explained his two years of Jewish studies for the sake of his toddler-aged son. He also spoke of awakening the significance of Hatikvah that had lain dormant in him since he played it on his first violin recital when he was five years old.  With Lynch, he discussed the process of researching, writing, and revising the five-part libretto. He played two or three minutes of a MIDI-realization of the piece with the score scrolling on-screen and himself speaking the part Rabbi Levitt will perform at the JCC in Manhattan on March 31. He highlighted the opening of the piece, where the entire 40-member ensemble of rabbi and concert band read in unison, a foreshadowing of audience participation that happens later in the piece. He also noted that the work is a passacaglia in which the repeated bass line is introduced by a French horn, an instrument he described as reminiscent of Wagner’s scene openings and Haitian conch shell communication. (I later wondered why he did not mention the shofar.)

Members of the audience were concerned about the sadness and universality of the piece. One audience member noted that Passover is a festive holiday and wished that the piece would “bring the joy more.” Daniel assured her that although the opening excerpt was sad, “The light is coming.” Another audience member spoke about the potential of “losing the Jewishness of the piece.” This comment sparked an extended discussion among DBR, Lynch, and other audience members about the responsibility of the artists and the beauty of the music. DBR explained that Rabbi Levitt’s contributions of teaching, a haggadah, and a personal interview were as much a part of the piece as him writing his music. Lynch described the project as a “dialogue among cultures and religions.” I look forward to the New York premiere because I am currently experimenting with spoken rather than sung text setting and because I wonder if attending will feel like being at a seder rather than at a concert.

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