The 2018 Gesher Music Festival

Learn more about the Festival from Artistic Director Sara Sitzer

 Sara Sitzer, Artistic Director

Sara Sitzer, Artistic Director

The music that has shaped a culture, protested regimes, and illuminated the underrepresented: the Gesher Music Festival explores these themes through the prism of classical chamber music in its upcoming eighth season, VOICES RISING.

Greetings, and welcome to the eighth annual Gesher Music Festival! In thinking this year about the music that could represent the theme, VOICES RISING, I had two thoughts in mind: a celebration of the human voice and the music written for it, and the way that composers have expressed their own voices through their music.

As St. Louis celebrates 100 years of Muny Memories this year, we’ve partnered with the Missouri History Museum once again to present a program dedicated to the musical legacy of Tin Pan Alley. It was this revolutionary wave of (mostly Jewish!) composers that paved the way for the songs of Broadway and American popular music to become an integral part of our culture. As many artists like Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and Scott Joplin created whole new genres of popular music, more serious classical composers couldn’t help but be swayed to incorporate elements of those genres into their own music. Ravel, Debussy, Milhaud, and a slew of others wrote music with a nod to jazz and ragtime, and a few artists like Gershwin and Bernstein managed to straddle both the popular and the classical worlds.

Our program at the 560 Music Center looks at a very different type of voice: that of protest. Throughout the ages, composers have used music as a form of resistance. From Ilse Weber’s Lullaby written from inside Theresienstadt, to the American composer Frederic Rzewski, who has made a career out of writing protest music, the program culminates with Dmitri Shostakovich’s infamous eighth string quartet, which the composer dedicated “to the victims of fascism and the war.”

 St. Louis based composer L.J. White is featured on our Aug 19 program. 

St. Louis based composer L.J. White is featured on our Aug 19 program. 

The final program of our eighth season attempts to gives voice to two groups: underrepresented composers: women, African-Americans, members of the LGBT community; and those whose voices have been lost: victims of the Holocaust and even extinct animals. The final piece of the festival is music from the film “The Golem,” a story of a clay creature magically coming to life — just as the Golem is given life in this classic story, we hope to give voice to these important groups through music.

Throughout time, artists have composed music and created art as a prism to reflect the world that they live in. Hearing their voices helps us to build bridges throughout history, across cultures, and through our own community. Besides these three main programs, we’ll be presenting free concerts around St. Louis to children and to underserved audiences, as we do each year.

We look forward to sharing the fascinating stories and the powerful music of voices past and present, and hope you'll join us this August!

Meet Composer LJ White

 

St. Louis based composer LJ White's piece Way Down Yonder is featured on our Sunday August 19th concert "GIVING VOICE". His thoughtful relationship with the text by poet Rickey Laurentiis broadens the original context of the poem to reach all of us. 

Tell us a little about your path to becoming a composer and how you ended up here in st. Louis.

I grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and was fortunate to have a really great public school music education there.  I sang and played the trombone, and I knew I wanted to have a career in music, but I didn't really realize that there were living composers, and that I could be one, until I got to college and saw others majoring in composition.  I got a Bachelor of Music degree in trombone performance and composition, and then I pursued a doctorate in composition and landed a job at Washington University.  I moved here last summer and am really enjoying it so far.

LJ meme.png

The theme of this year's Gesher Music Festival is Voices Rising. How would you describe your musical voice? And how do you see the voice of an artist in today's social, political, and cultural landscape?

I try to make music that is direct, communicative, and socially relevant. I also try to break down barriers of genre by considering all of the elements that make up music (such harmony, rhythm, phrasing, timbres, etc, etc) individually, and bringing together musical signifiers that may not typically be juxtaposed, if it helps me to get at a mood or purpose as best I can.  To me, challenging classification is something of a political act: as a transgender person, I have spent a lot of time thinking about traits that inform outward identity and about forming such an identity outside of the options stipulated by our culture, effectively by making lots of small decisions rather than conforming to a big category (like male or female.)  All of that said, though, in this piece, my main goal was just to elucidate Rickey's words and explore how they must have been feeling when they wrote the poem -- essentially, to support their voice with music.

What can you tell us about your piece, Way Down Yonder?

It's a setting of Rickey Laurentiis's poem of the same name, which is about their return to their childhood home of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  They have told me that it's about how much they love the city and also felt betrayed by it, even while thinking that that feeling was sort of irrational. There's a palpable appreciation for the unique culture of the city in the poem, too, and it has a lot of musical quotations - the title is from the song "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," and "Amazing Grace" is quoted, and it talks about dancing and music, all of it sort of in a jumble that is more felt than intellectually understood.  I blended in quotations from those songs and others, and tried to construct the whole piece like a sort of feedback loop, with material moving about as if being tossed in the wind or reflecting off of water, which are important images in the poetry.  

Your music is included in a program entitled Giving Voice, intended to feature underrepresented composers and also voices lost. How do you think you as a composer and the poet Rickey Laurentiis fit in with this theme?

Well, to be truthful, I remember I had some questions for you about this when you first asked me to be part of the show!  I'm happy to be represented on any concert whose organizers are interested in my work, and I'm a big fan of the Gesher Festival and thrilled to be part of it.  I'm really glad to see a plurality of experiences represented on this concert within the festival theme of Jewish identity, as well as beyond it, and I'm proud to add my work to the spectrum of what is created by Jewish artists in the modern era.  Certainly, there aren't many visible trans composers in the field; I think that perhaps I can bring a unique perspective for that reason.  Rickey is transgender, as well, and is black, and their racial identity, at least, informs the circumstances of this poem.  To me, the poem is, in a broader sense, about being cared for: Are we safe and valued in the cities we love?  Are those in power keeping us safe and protecting what is sacred to us, and doing so for everyone equally?  

What's your favorite hang in STL? Where are people likely to find you and what will you be eating/drinking?

I just moved to the Cherokee Street area and love it there.  You might find me checking out exhibitions at Monaco or the Luminary, or eating at any of the restaurants nearby - there are too many good ones to choose! 

Meet Composer Shawn Jaeger

Shawn's piece "Resignation" will be performed on Saturday August 18 at the 560 Music Center as part of the program "RISE UP: Sounds of Protest". He has a deep and multi-faceted connection to this work. 

Tell us a little about your path to becoming a composer. 

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and started Suzuki violin at age 7. In high school, I studied with the concertmaster of the Louisville Orchestra, and attended the Youth Performing Arts School, where I played in orchestra and took classes in music theory and jazz improvisation. I started composing to figure out how music worked. I still vividly remember the first time I put together a basic chord progression by ear—it was exhilarating, as though I’d cracked a secret code. My mother worked in computer education for the public school system, so I was also fortunate to have a computer at home with music notation software in the mid-1990s, which, in Louisville at least, was unusual. By the time I was 15, I was pretty adept, so my mom arranged for me to teach an inservice training session for the public-school music teachers on this software.

shawn meme.png

The theme of this year's Gesher Music Festival is Voices Rising. How would you describe your musical voice? And how do you see the voice of an artist in today's social, political, and cultural landscape?

Place is central to my musical voice. Much of my music is inspired by the people and cultural practices of my native state of Kentucky, particularly Appalachian folk balladry and hymnody. I view art as a (spiritual) practice: the discipline, listening, and honesty required make me a better person. It’s a privilege to address an audience in sound, and I take it seriously. Following Pauline Oliveros, I want my art to be beneficial to myself, and all who experience it. I want to be vulnerable, and to create space in which others can be vulnerable, too. My primary subjects—place, grief, prayer, spiritual ecology, community—reflect these beliefs. Wendell Berry writes: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

What can you tell us about your piece, Resignation?

“Resignation” takes its title from the American folk melody of the same name, better known as the tune for the Christian hymn, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” with words, by Isaac Watts (1675-1748), paraphrasing Psalm 23. My song is built of fragments of text and music from the hymn, which are freely re-ordered, then frozen and repeated. As re-ordered, these fragments form a kind of litany or lament, in protest against our 45th President.

I wrote the song in early 2017, when Trump’s first travel ban was being implemented. Watts’ text is one of solace and comfort: the overriding message is “You will be provided for.” Basically, I take all the things Watts says we don’t have to worry about, and say, “You have to worry about these!” This was my response to the ban's callous indifference to suffering, as well as an expression of my despondency and anger as the new administration became increasingly brazen. Seen in this light, the title word, resignation, not only refers to the eponymous folk tune, but also connotes the frustrated acceptance of something undesirable, as well as the act of giving up political office.

Your music is included in a program entitled Sounds of Protest, and includes music by Shostakovich, Rzewski, and Ilse Weber. How do you think you as a composer fit in with this theme?

“Resignation,” for me, is definitely a song of protest, so I am grateful to be included on this program, alongside composers whose music I greatly admire. That said, the words, which are a re-working of a historical text, don’t mention any specific dates or names, but instead suggest a general atmosphere of fear and anger that isn’t specific to the situation—Trump’s travel ban—that was the impetus for writing the song. In this way, the song resonates beyond the specific situation from which it arose, but it loses specificity and clarity, as a result, and maybe thus needs more extra-musical explanation (like this) to explore its meanings. Then again, one could say the same thing about Shostakovich’s quartet.

Your wife, long-time Gesher superstar Lucy Dhegrae, will be singing this piece on the festival. Was it written for her? What can you tell us about Lucy's relationship to the piece?

I wrote this song for a recital Lucy gave in the spring of 2017. She, knowing how much I love folk music and hymns, suggested that I look at the tune Resignation—a favorite of hers since childhood. This was in December, 2016, shortly after Donald Trump was elected. I was struck by the music’s beauty and words’ solace. The contrast between this beauty and solace and the absence thereof in the political world we were entering at that time was the starting point for my song. Because Lucy knows the source material well, I think the piece is meaningful for her. It’s very simple and repetitive music (unusual for me), which leaves lots of space to communicate with and reflect on the words—something I think Lucy does especially well.

What the musicians are excited about!

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 12.23.21 PM.png
 Vocalist Lucy Dhegrae

Vocalist Lucy Dhegrae

If you've been coming to the Festival in recent years, you'll be happy to hear the beautiful voice of Lucy Dhegrae again. Lucy says "I’m really looking forward to LJ’s piece “Way Down Yonder”... I met LJ last summer [In St. Louis] and we got along so well, so it’s really nice to get an opportunity to know his music better!"

Violinist J Freivogel returns to his home town from Philadelphia, where he is based with the award winning Jasper String Quartet (Who will be performing at the 560 Music Center in February)  

J says "I'm excited to play everything, especially Shostakovich Quartet No. 8 and the Blues movement form Ravel Violin Sonata. Shostakovich expresses his circumstances profoundly in his 8th Quartet and performing and experiencing this piece is moving. Ravel is also so much fun, who wouldn't want to play a Blues movement on the violin?"

 J Freivogel, violin (also picture, Karen Kim)

J Freivogel, violin (also picture, Karen Kim)

 Daniel Pesca, piano

Daniel Pesca, piano

Festival Pianist, Daniel Pesca returns to wow us again. He says: "The Thursday night program is sure to be a toe-tapping good time, full of catchy melodies and dance rhythms—but, I must admit, I am looking forward to the Saturday evening program even more. Shawn Jaeger is an old friend of mine, and it will be a profound pleasure to bring his gorgeous music to St. Louis in collaboration with Lucy. I also play a sizable solo on Saturday: Rzewski's quirky, virtuosic, and ultimately moving set of variations on Mayn Yingele."

St. Louis based clarinetist Dana Hotle says, "I can't wait to bring to life Der Golem. It's such an incredibly expressive and fun piece. Composer Betty Olivero did an amazing job capturing the essence and energy of Klezmer music and translates it perfectly for clarinet and string quartet" 

 Dana Hotle, clarinet

Dana Hotle, clarinet

The 2016 Festival

The 2016 Festival

What a time to be focusing on America, right?? In this current election season, it’s hard not to feel how divided our country is. But the wonderful thing about art is that it transcends politics and reminds us of the common ground we share. Much like the vistas and the people that make up this country, the music of America is incredibly varied! In fact, just three concerts hardly do justice to the wide scope of styles and sounds that have been created here.

Read More

The 2015 Festival

Throughout history, oppressive regimes have established a brutal control over their people through various methods: violence, imprisonment, rules...but one of the most dehumanizing means of control is by censoring art. This August, the Gesher Music Festival’s 5th anniversary season celebrates and brings to life the art and music that was shunned and deemed DEGENERATE by the Nazi regime under Hitler’s reign.

Read More