Responding to the wave of anti-immigration sentiments that seems to have gripped much of the western world in recent years, the New York Philharmonic’s “New York Stories” series is putting a focus on those who have come to the city from other lands. The series opened 24 January, and a more powerful way to begin than the premiere of Julia Wolfe’s massive memorial to the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is hard to imagine.

The world premiere of Julia Wolfe's <i>Fire in my mouth</i> © Steven Pisano
The world premiere of Julia Wolfe's Fire in my mouth
© Steven Pisano

The concert opened in enormity as well, with Steven Stucky’s brief but powerful Elegy from 2008. Tonal blocks and slow timpani filled Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall in a rush, but seemed frozen, refusing to build. The sonic bricks soon softened, the drums fading away and the music growing maudlin. At just seven minutes, it felt wider than it was long, beginning with a climax, receding and at last centering with two, heartbreaking chimes. The piece is the seventh of 12 movements in Stucky’s August 4, 1964 – dedicated to American President Lyndon B Johnson and given its premiere by current NY Philharmonic Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, who conducted this night’s concert as well – but here served as a strong prelude.

Perhaps one of the most American of composers and one of the most New York of hybrids, Aaron Copland and his 1948 Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano follows the jazz orchestrations of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, a light two movement piece commissioned by none other than Benny Goodman. Copland was a composer of wide open plains, not the skyscrapers of Ellington and Gershwin, and the piece allowed principal clarinetist Anthony McGill to sing but not to dance. McGill approached the upper register lines as a leisurely stroll and hopped about the flurries of the jazz vernacular but was left wanting for a theme. It called to mind Bartók’s folk dances, sprightly yet lacking the feeling of the folk.

Anthony McGill © Steven Pisano
Anthony McGill
© Steven Pisano

Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth occupied the second half of the program. The four movement oratorio employed the full orchestra and two choruses, creating a living memorial to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 workers (mostly female immigrants, some as young as 14) lost their lives. It’s a linear work, with a simple storyline and on screen animation outlining the journey to and promise of America and the eventual tragedy.

The voices were, of course, a big part of the dramatic import. A contingent of five women repeating the phrase “without passports or anything” grew in the first minutes to the 36 women of the Philadelphia choir The Crossing (fast becoming an indispensible asset in the production of large scale new works in the northeast), representing in their numbers the experience of thousands. In the third movement, the singing was augmented by 110 girls from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (bringing the total number of singers to the number of lives lost in the fire), marching down the aisles in period dress and repeating in unison: “I want to say a few words / I am a working girl / One of those striking against / intolerable conditions,” as if to say “Do you dare not care?”

Jaap van Zweden and Julia Wolfe © Steven Pisano
Jaap van Zweden and Julia Wolfe
© Steven Pisano

Wolfe made full use of the orchestra’s power and potential. Slow scraping of bows across strings mimicked the sounds of sewing machines, underscored by a deep, foreboding, pulse in the bass. In a wonderful piece of scoring, Wolfe didn’t just use the sound to create a scene but worked it across the strings, creating a Doppler effect of shifting rhythms. The tension was palpable, as if (whether or not they actually did) the workers knew the conditions weren’t safe. Elsewhere, the choir brandished large scissors, snapping them open and shut in a tight percussion, and overlaid old Italian and Yiddish songs in a social polyphony.

The piece ended with the names of the victims sung in overlapping voices, singing (it seemed) not to, but at the audience. Here Wolfe was confrontational, asking her city, “Do you dare forget?” The audience, surely nearly all New Yorkers, don’t remember, likely barely knew. The story hasn’t been woven into the fabric of city lore, but now, 108 years after the tragedy, that’s poised to change. Efforts are underway to create a memorial at the site of the former West Village factory. And Wolfe, a 2015 Pulitzer winner and 2016 MacArthur Fellow, has created a powerful musical memorial that demands to be performed, and heard, much, much more.

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