CityMusic Cleveland's new program a winner from 'Roots to Branches' (review)
Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer, March 14, 2014
Dull moments aren’t just rare on CityMusic Cleveland’s current program. They don’t exist.
Between an evocative and important new piece, a captivating work for solo cello, and a galvanized account of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, the program as performed Wednesday to a small audience at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights during a snowstorm kept listeners engaged from beginning to end.
Of greatest significance, and allure, was “Roots to Branches,” a new work by Cleveland-trained composer Dan Visconti. Using the words and musical languages of real people, Visconti celebrates the amazing stories of refugees who’ve started new lives in Northeast Ohio.
Which was the more stunning, the text or the music, it’s hard to say. Certainly the words, excerpts from interviews documenting real-life experiences, were powerful, especially as read by narrator Ali AlHaddad. Hearing of the hardships and joys experienced by local people brought home what often seems a remote phenomenon.
But it was the music, a scintillating fusion of global techniques, that made the 30 minutes of “Roots to Branches” pass so quickly under James Feddeck, former assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. Fragments of music representing Africa, Asia and the Middle East flowed together seamlessly in a colorful, fragrant stream spanning the decision to leave and the journey abroad to life in a new and foreign place.
At the center of it all was guest percussionist Shane Shanahan. Employing an array of exotic drums and flutes, and making noises with his own body, he captured both the sounds and essences of other cultures. Especially affecting was his rustling of water in portraying overseas travel and his exuberant drumming and cheek-slapping in “Black Days” to depict what the “Lost Boys of Sudan” do to lift their spirits.
Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 might seem an odd answer to a fresh and socially-conscious work like “Roots to Branches.” But it isn’t. At the performance Wednesday, the two dovetailed perfectly, sharing a sense of triumph over adversity.
What’s more, the performance by CityMusic would have been welcome in almost any context. Driven, insightful, tidy: Feddeck’s reading had everything one could ask for. That he also brought it off with a chamber orchestra, in which every single player is exposed, only made the feat more remarkable.
Then again, on the remarkable scale, few pieces can compare to the first work on CityMusic’s program, “Khse Buon,” a work for solo cello by Chinary Ung. His first piece after narrow escape from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, “Khse Buon” melds the music of Ung’s homeland with the Western methods he came to the U.S. to study.
What a combination. The tour-de-force performance Wednesday by interim principal cellist James Jaffe was almost literally spellbinding, holding listeners rapt with a broad palette of anguished sighs, aggressive outbursts and barely audible whispers.
The only thing more incredible than the piece and the performance is the composer’s obscurity. Like Visconti, and indeed CityMusic itself, he merits real recognition.