By Joseph E. Morgan
We live in an age of immigration. Since 2016 over 5 million refugees have fled the warzone in Syria and nearly a million Rohingya Muslims have fled persecution in Myanmar. Although there is some debate as to whether it merits such a proclamation, our own President has declared a state of emergency for fear of an influx of immigrants from the South. Chatterbird, a Nashville ensemble whose focus is on uniquely orchestrated music, dealt directly with this topic in its most recent concert, Hello Gold Mountain in a world premiere composition by their composer in residence, Wu Fei.
Fei’s Hello Gold Mountain: a requiem for lost possibilities of the Jewish community of Shanghai “tells the stories of Jewish refugees who fled from Europe to Shanghai during WWII and later from Shanghai to San Francisco during the Chinese Civil War.” This seven-movement programmatic work contains aleatoric elements as well as contemporary sounds enmeshed within evocative gentle references to the programmatic element. The performance featured the wonderful Chatterbird ensemble enriched by both Wu Fei’s performance on the guzheng (a 21-string zither) and Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, a virtuosic player of the middle eastern oud. The ensemble was complemented by traditional Western instruments such as the piano and the clarinet.
The most intimate movement of the evening featured Blumenkranz and Fei improvising freely, sharing riffs and melodic thoughts that seemed to connect these instruments of highly disparate cultures, surely a result of Blumenkranz’s experience with the Silk Road Ensemble, nevertheless this remarkable effect proved a powerful message to remind one of shared humanity when cultures clash.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the project, one that Fei began years ago in 2006, was that the ensemble found a local connection to this immigrant group. A local woman, SarahRose Schiftan gave a reading of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s Take Me Under Your Wing, in memory of her grandmother Edith Schiftan, who was one of those who found refuge in Shanghai. The moment was quite poignant and served to remind us of the real-world consequences of these historically and geographically distant events.
The Sixth Movement “Shanghai Dark Sea,” a slow dirge featuring Fei’s own haunting voice, tremolo strings and Theremin-like bowed pipes, made the sorrow of those “lost possibilities” tangible. Further, Fei ensured that each member of the audience entered into the story through a simple chant that she printed in the program and which the conductor directed the audience to sing, effectively connecting everyone in the room. At the end of the performance, during the pregnant pause before the standing ovation I reflected on what Fei had written about the composition on its dedicated website: https://www.hellogoldmountain.com/about
What musical possibilities were lost because the times did not allow neighbors from these different cultures to grow old together, sharing songs and stories? Similarly, what artistic creations will be lost if Europe and the United States close the door to refugees and migrants from lands in chaos?
It is right and proper that we should consider the past in our decisions regarding the present. With this performance, Chatterbird has done us all a wonderful service in reminding us of that ancient fact. Further, they have also presented a composition whose political and cultural relevance will not soon pass.