David Greilsammer conducts Suedama Ensemble through its rehearsal before its New York City debut Dec. 11 at the 92nd Street Y.
The Magpie Mason began the month of December with mention of Suedama Ensemble’s upcoming performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, and before the month is out I’d better tell you what happened!
The performance was the NYC debut of this very excellent chamber orchestra that, for the occasion, chose a program of Mozart’s Masonic music and other esoterica-inspired works, including the world premier of an avant-garde piece. The evening was titled “A Musical Exploration of Freemasonry and Kabbalah.” The Y’s gorgeous and acoustically magnificent Kaufmann Concert Hall was the perfect venue. Its performance space is seemingly a smaller version of (pre-renovation) Alice Tully Hall, and the highest reaches of its walls are engraved with the names of our cultural giants: David and Moses; Washington and Lincoln; Shakespeare and Dante; Beethoven and Bach; and others. A monument to Western civilization.
For a music lover, it was a perfect day. Through the kind offices of the orchestra’s management, the Magpie Mason was granted access to the dress rehearsal before the performance, and to the performance itself, for a total of about five hours of live music. Many thanks to superpublicist Amelia Kusar for her limitless patience and cheerful assistance.
The second piece performed was Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music” for orchestra in C Minor, K. 477. Composed in 1785, this short work commemorates the deaths of two of Mozart’s lodge brothers. No fewer than three basset horns are enlisted for the work, lending a sublime aura to an already somber sound. The program notes for the concert say “the key of C Minor, with its three flats, and the work’s ABA form, reflect Masonic Trinitarian symbolism,” and that “the midsection is based on a Gregorian chant sung during Holy Week.” The piece’s final C major chord “foreshadows the eternal peace that Mozart described in an often-quoted letter to his dying father: ‘Death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.’ ” And indeed that chord, which was rehearsed to tonal and timed perfection that afternoon, conveyed an optimism that would remind any Mason of the immortality of the soul.
“I don’t know if the ‘Funeral Music’ would have had the same meaning for me if it had been of a different nature,” said Artistic Director and Conductor David Greilsammer during a telephone interview five days after the performance. “I have a few friends who have joined lodges in different parts of the world – Tel Aviv, Paris, New York – who have told me about Freemasonry. It’s really a beautiful thing to see how the ideas and works of the composer have been influenced (by Masonry), and it has been on my mind. It has a transcendent psychological power. We were all feeling very much that connection to something very mystical and special. A lot of passion went into it.”
Greilsammer and Suedama Ensemble have one CD available. Titled “Mozart Early Piano Concertos,” it consists of three concertos for piano and orchestra (K. 175, K. 238 and K. 246), composed during Mozart’s youth. Greilsammer said the composer’s Masonic music will “definitely be a big part of the next recording.”
The second Mozart work performed that night was Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major, K. 482, and was by far the best known piece in the program. The program notes say Mozart unveiled this work in December of 1785, possibly at a “musical ‘academy’ sponsored by a Masonic lodge.” Specifically it is the piece’s third movement that even the least osmotic listener of classical music can recognize from its various pop culture uses. As the program notes put it: “Mozart decorates (it) with dazzlingly virtuosic passagework. A brief Andantino episode interrupts the musical momentum before piano and orchestra resume their merry dash to the finish line.” And it is a lively finish indeed, rendered all the more impressive by Greilsammer’s dual roles as conductor and pianist!
Without recounting the entire evening, the Magpie Mason must share a little about the world premier of Jonathan Keren’s “On the Bridge of Words: A Triple Concerto for Narrator, Clarinet, Piano and Chamber Orchestra.” This 15-minute piece is the aforementioned avant-garde work inspired by the Kabbalah of Jewish mysticism. Or, more accurately, as Keren explained during an interview before the show, this music’s narration borrows from six literary texts that were Kabbalah inspired. His goal as composer was to envision music that could have inspired those texts, creating a triangular cycle among the ancient Kabbalah, these six texts spanning from the 13th to 20th centuries, and this modern music.
“It’s not a bad thing to be inspired by the world outside of music,” Keren said. “We derive our inspiration from real life experiences.” This particular real life influence arrived in the form of a commission from the 92nd Street Y and the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, a challenge that didn’t cause him to blink at all. “The real challenge is to work with that and still be yourself. It can nourish and inspire. One day I may have to write a trumpet concerto, and I’ll have to deal with that!”
Well, let’s hope his career won’t force him onto that daunting a path.
“On the Bridge of Words” is music that one probably would not play in the car. It is not intended for background or even passive enjoyment, but demands your attention. The narrator’s six texts are conversational to the music; each quotation marks a movement, and the seventh movement is a pastiche of all the six quotations, culminating the lesson in symbolism for the listener. The music itself reminds me of Frank Zappa’s orchestral work and, by extension, of Zappa’s influences, like Varese and Holst.
As the program notes put it: “On a deeper symbolic level, Keren tells us that each text relates to one of the seven lower Sefirot, or so-called attributes in the Kabbalah. These attributes – such as understanding, judgment, beauty, and victory – are held to be emanations of the divine principle, the creative forces that link the infinite realm of the unknowable to the finite world of creation. Taken together, words and music constitute what the composer describes as ‘a musical and philosophical journey.’ ”
Greilsammer, who collaborated with Keren on the work, offered more background.
“I was born and raised in Israel, with a traditional Jewish family, but Kabbalah was very secretive. You don’t learn about it in school and do not hear a lot about it. So I started my own reading of philosophers’ and rabbis’ ideas. It is a different world that fascinates me.” Of the music itself, he describes it as “an interesting contrast between two languages: one avant-garde, and one musical sound we always use classically.”
“Usually when you hear an opera, it can be very difficult to understand,” he added, “but I have found that as crazy as (this) music is, you can relate and make sense of the narrator. He’s just giving you information. He’s not acting, making it different and a unique format.”
That’s a fact!
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It is New Year’s Eve, and quite a blizzard is brewing here. The Magpie Mason is signing off for 2008, wishing you all a joyful and hopefully prosperous 2009.