NOTES: Celebrating the Rich Tapestry of American Music with MasterVoices' "Our America"
Earlier this evening, The Great Hall at The Cooper Union provided an august and auspicious setting for MasterVoices’ presentation of “Our America”, an original concert celebration of the importance of immigrants and their contributions to the rich tapestry of American music.
The hall, which was the site of then-candidate Abraham Lincoln’s breakout speech to the national stage in 1860, is awash in history having played silent witness to our country’s triumphs and foibles over the past 159 years—and perhaps no story in American life offers more triumph and foible than the story of immigration.
This evening of song curated by Tony Award-winning MasterVoices Artistic Director Ted Sperling, and performed by the 100+ member chorus, an ensemble band of seven, and a trio of guest solo vocalists, was very much “inspired by the news”, as Mr. Sperling admitted, with the aim of proving the “unqualified success” that immigration has been for American music.
By that measure, the program delivered with abundance, featuring a feast of great music by immigrants or their early descendants, including Benito Amador and Justino Alarcon (Mexican), Irving Berlin (Russian), Leonard Bernstein (Ukrainian), Aaron Copland (Lithuanian), Victor Herbert (Irish), George and Ira Gershwin (Russian), Sydney Guillaume (Haitian), Woody Guthrie (Irish), John Poole (Irish), and Kurt Weill (German), alongside a suite of slave spirituals.
Composers Randall Eng (Chinese) and Daniel Rein (Israeli) were commissioned by MasterVoices to write new pieces that premiered at the concert. “Remain”, a chilling, stark, and somber composition by Mr. Eng, uses as its text a pamphlet produced by the Museum of Chinese in America offering advice to immigrants if approached by ICE at home or on the street (“you have the right to remain silent”, and so forth). Mr. Rein musicalized three poems by E. E. Cummings, employing a rich, stirring, and varied use of musical idiom.
American music is “always a combination of things”, said vocalist David Lutken (who was superb in “Woody Sez” earlier this season). And he’s right. The joy in a program of great American music is easily found in the disparate origins of its compositions combining to produce a new, American sound. Both commissioned pieces fit firmly in this tradition, one that is very much alive, despite the poisonous, shameful immigration politics of our time, which are by no means unique. To wit, the song “No Irish Need Apply”, penned circa 1860, could have been written today, just substitute your favorite maligned minority for “Irish”, et voila. American rejection and othering of immigrants is, well, deeply (and paradoxically) American.
The MasterVoices chorus and musicians were terrific, as always, fulfilling founder Robert Shaw’s belief that the human voice is “the world’s most powerful instrument”. Alongside Mr. Lutken and opera singer Justin Austin as soloists, recent Julliard graduate Mikaela Bennett (City Center Encores! “The Golden Apple”) was the knockout standout of the evening. The pure beauty of her voice, proficiency of her technique, and clarity of her sound made her solos highlights, second only to the finale: Irving Berlin’s “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from the largely forgotten 1949 musical “Miss Liberty” (about the Statue of Liberty), which musicalizes an iconic portion of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus” (reproduced below).
Eyes drenches with tears, surrounded in every direction by a chorus as diverse as America lining the aisles of a storied venue graced by eight presidents, a mid-20th century song by a Russian immigrant quoting the words of a Jewish German-Portuguese-American poet from the 19th century affirmed what has always made “our America” great, from its founding in the 18th century to future we face in the 21st: immigration. Our music, our history, affirms it, and so must we.
The New Colossus (1883)
By Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"