Migration has become a hot-button issue in recent years, and is a compelling one around which to build programming. Carnegie Hall is in the midst of three months of concerts, screenings and talks at various venues around New York City’s five boroughs, all under the banner Migrations: The Making of America. Oddly enough, though, the concert by the American Composers Orchestra in the basement of Carnegie Hall wasn’t a part of that series. The concert included the New York premiere of Pulitzer-winner Du Yun’s ambitious 2019 work Where We Lost Our Shadows for orchestra, two vocalists and percussion solo, along with older pieces by Gloria Coates and Morton Feldman.

<i>Where We Lost Our Shadows</i>: American Composers Orchestra © Jennifer Taylor
Where We Lost Our Shadows: American Composers Orchestra
© Jennifer Taylor

Immigrant experience and cultural convergence can also be a difficult assignment for a composer, running the risk of pastiche without impetus or, worse, trite messaging. The latter was where Du began, with a mirror held up to the audience as if to say “This is you, we are all immigrants”. It wasn’t long, however, before the brilliant percussionist Shayna Dunkelman put down the mirror and positioned herself at her drums, playing a slow and powerful solo while footage of Middle Eastern border crossings screened above the orchestra. Arabic voices in the film collided with the voice and shruti box of the animated Pakistani Qawwali singer Ali Sethi, whose movements seemed to reflect Dunkelman’s very physical playing. The beautifully amorphous orchestral arrangement was drowned out from time to time by interview footage of young Syrian immigrants, full of hope for the future, a reminder (perhaps sadly necessary) that immigrants are often good people trying to live better lives through legally established means.

The various elements on stage were set in shifting layers, climaxing in a beautiful double solo by Sethi and the dynamic soprano Helga Davis, who – dressed like Janelle Monae and intoning Nina Simone – delivered a wonderfully bluesy wail. It’s to Du’s credit that it all worked so well. The work was composed with Davis, Dunkelman and Sethi in mind, Du said from the stage, and all the moving parts met in a strong and singular statement.

Du’s work comprised the stronger second half of the evening. The concert opened with the quiet dissonance of Feldman’s 1980 Turfan Fragments. It’s a fairly upbeat piece by Feldman standards and the orchestra gave it a lively reading. The “fragments”, scored without pause, were inspired by the remnants of fourth- to sixth-century woven rugs discovered in East Turkestan with enough remaining material to suggest patterns without fully revealing them. The pace makes it one of Feldman’s easier pieces – it was actually thrilling at points – but it lacks the tension that ordinarily makes his glacial pace so riveting.

© Jennifer Taylor
© Jennifer Taylor

The inclusion of the piece worked only by allusion; there’s nothing particularly Turkestanian or cross-cultural about the composition. That said, any excuse for doing Feldman is a good excuse. Likewise, American-born composer Gloria Coates’ presence on the program felt rather forced. She composed her Symphony no. 1 between 1973 and '74 using the Chinese pentatonic scale, although the music doesn’t particularly call that culture to mind. This is not a failing in the piece itself. Indeed, as the composer admitted in a program note, she had abandoned her first attempt for sounding “pseudo Chinese”. But it was only in the program notes that the migratory message was apparent.

The orchestra infused the piece with the suspense Feldman’s Fragments lacked. The first movement was dominated by an almost simplistic open-string four-count in the upper register played against heavy pizzicato and swooping glissandi in the lower, charging the air in the theatre. The elements slowly came together – rhythmically if not harmonically – building to a surprising density. The fourth movement complimented the first well with thicketed patterns slowly falling together while gaining mass. Where the first came to an abrupt end, however, the final movement receded and gathered around a single, held note, building in volume and a beautiful feeling of pure potential. Sandwiched between the two were two brief movements that exercised the similar strategies to lesser effect. One could be excused for wondering why the two-movement symphony is such a rarity. In some cases, an A/B sums everything up quite nicely. (Du and Feldman, for that matter, each managed with one.)

While Feldman was the son of Russian immigrants and Coates has lived most of her adult life in England and Germany, neither piece seemed intended to speak to these international experiences. Discrepancies with curatorial conceit, however, are more philosophical than aesthetic. The music itself needn’t migrate nor pontificate.

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