CityMusic Cleveland prepares celebration of Northeast Ohio's refugees with 'Roots to Branches'
Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer, March 11, 2014
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Ever the artistic entrepreneur, CityMusic Cleveland is used to tackling creative projects. But its current effort, the one it’s presenting this week, could very well take the cake.
That’s because its latest offering under guest conductor James Feddeck exposes and celebrates a fascinating process going on right under most people’s noses here in Northeast Ohio: refugee immigration.
In commissioning and performing “Roots to Branches,” a new work for percussion, narrator and orchestra by Dan Visconti, the group aims to relate through music the news and stories of thousands of people from all over the world forging new lives along the shores of Lake Erie.
“Everything about it seemed like a good fit with our mission,” said Rebecca Schweigert Mayhew, CityMusic’s vice president of community engagement and a driving force behind the project. “The response from the community has been tremendous. People are really interested.”
As well they should be. After all, it isn’t every day an organization dedicated to free performances of classical music sets out to raise social awareness.
But that’s exactly what going on with “Roots to Branches.” Upon learning of the approximately 20,000 residents of Cleveland newly arrived from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Mayhew and CityMusic were inspired to celebrate those peoples’ experiences using the instruments and musical styles native to their homelands.
And so they tapped Visconti, an award-winning composer with deep roots in the city and an interest in vernacular music, who they assumed correctly would be just as surprised and intrigued as they were.
They also called upon Shane Shanahan, a percussionist with the famously eclectic Silk Road Ensemble, to serve as soloist, and on narrator Ali Alhaddad, who will recite material drawn from interviews with actual refugees.
“I always knew Cleveland had a diverse population,” said Visconti. “But I had no idea of the extent. I was really stunned by the number.”
He was even more stunned by the challenge of fusing so many diverse tales into a single, coherent piece. Working on “Roots to Branches” remotely from Rome, Visconti received and gathered enough diverse information from Cleveland’s refugees to literally fill a book.
Then he arrived at a solution: the emotional journey. No matter whether the person hailed from Bhutan, Somalia or Syria, each refugee went through the same rollercoaster experience of deciding to leave, waiting in a camp, venturing across the globe, and settling in a foreign place.
It’s those benchmarks, rather than the details of any one person’s story, that became the framework of the piece. In the end, Visconti crafted a 30-minute, five-movement work tracing the journey in the abstract from its earliest intimations to its final flowering. The title came from a comment by a Bhutanese refugee, who said his native roots are withering while his branch in the U.S. is blossoming.
“It really was a sculpting, whittling-down process,” Visconti explained. “There are so many really tragic elements. But there are also so many elements of humor and excitement.
“Ultimately I want to show how they’ve learned to rebuild and the joy they’ve found. I hope they feel I’ve done justice to their stories.”
Another amazing story will be relayed Wednesday through Sunday by interim principal cellist James Jaffe in the form of “Khse Buon,” a work for solo cello by Chinary Ung.
The refugees in “Roots to Branches” looked to America for a better life. Ung, by contrast, simply came from his native Cambodia to study music, but ended up avoiding genocide, the topic of “Khse Buon.”
“His chances of survival would have been very slim,” Mayhew noted. “It’s a pretty raw and expressive piece.”
Rounding out the most unusual evening in CityMusic’s 10-year history will be one of the most familiar pieces of all time: Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3. Of all the standard works it might have chosen, the group went with the one closest in the spirit to the triumphant mood of “Roots to Branches,” Mayhew said.
But one suspects this won’t be CityMusic’s final word on the subject. Given the enthusiasm for “Roots to Branches” the group already has encountered, and the fact that refugee immigration is an active, never-ending, process, Mayhew said her organization could continue in this vein for a long, long time.
“It’s very encouraging to go further in this direction,” she said, noting the artistic treasure-troves Cleveland’s refugees represent. “There’s a lot that can be captured musically, things you just don’t get from reading words on a page.”