Thursday, May 24, 2012

Celebrating Ms. Lazarus and Ms. Liberty Through Music

One of the great things about our location is that we get to be a part of a vibrant downtown culture and work with other organizations that feel as strongly as we do about our neighborhood. We’re especially pleased to be working with the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra to present the world premiere of an evocative new work, “Cantata for Huddled Masses,” on Monday, June 11. In advance of this event, we reached out to Gary Fagin, the composer of the piece and the music director of the KCO, for a sneak preview.

MJH: Tell us about the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra. How did you get started?

Gary Fagin: I believe in the power of classical music to inspire and heal. After 9/11, I wanted to contribute to the revitalization of our wounded downtown community. I set in motion a plan that had been a lifelong dream–combining my passion for music and my love for my neighborhood–and founded the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra.

The KCO was incorporated in 2008 with twin goals: to perform great music in distinctive downtown venues and to offer innovative educational outreach. I’m proud to say we’ve accomplished these goals, each year reaching thousands of residents, workers and students.

MJH: What inspired you to write “Cantata for Huddled Masses”? How would you describe it?

Gary: I enjoy creating works that have an historical context. The combination of the recent 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, coinciding with the Museum of Jewish Heritage's Emma Lazarus exhibit, offered the opportunity to compose a work that honored both Ms. Liberty and Ms. Lazarus.

There are two contrasting musical elements in "Cantata for Huddled Masses," one undulating and wave-like, in which the harp plays a prominent part, and the other a setting of the poem's most famous lines as an anthem.

MJH: What is your composing process like?

Gary: Most important for me is finding the right harmonic context for a composition, from which I can generate one or two brief motives.

From these simple ideas, the macroscopic form of the piece takes shape; the end process is then orchestrating the work from my initial piano sketches.

MJH: How did the fabulous Marin Mazzie get involved?

Gary: Marin Mazzie and her husband, Jason Danieley, two of Broadway's most celebrated performers, are dear friends. In 2009 Jason Danieley thrillingly premiered my work "And Bold to Fall," composed in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's sail into New York harbor, before an audience of 1,500 at the World Financial Center Winter Garden.

It has always been my desire to compose a work for Marin Mazzie, There is no performer more suited to represent "...the mighty woman with a torch..." than she, and I am delighted she has agreed to sing the premiere performance of "Cantata for Huddled Masses."

MJH: Along with the world premiere of “Cantata for Huddled Masses,” you have chosen a selection of pieces that influenced Lazarus or were inspired by her writing. How did you go about putting together the program? What should we listen for? What can we learn about Emma from this music?

Gary: Although Emma Lazarus’ passion was primarily the world of letters, music played a large part in her life. We will present sections of Robert Schumann's "Waldszenen," which inspired Lazarus' poem "Scenes in the Wood." Acclaimed actor Myra Lucretia Taylor will read parts of "Scenes in the Wood" between the movements of "Waldszenen."

We will also highlight music of 19th-century Jewish composers Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler, and perform Aaron Copland's "Letter from Home" as underscoring for a reading by Ms. Taylor of a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Emma Lazarus.

MJH: What would you like the audience to take away from the evening?

Gary: I’d like the audience to be moved. I’d like people to remember–or to be introduced to–the power and beauty of classical music. On a personal note, it is especially meaning for me, the son of a Holocaust survivor, to bring the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra to perform at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. I hope people will come away from the concert with an interest in the life, work and era of Emma Lazarus, and will think about the Statue of Liberty herself and all that she represents: freedom, courage, acceptance, opportunity, and peace.

Photo of the KCO by Robert Simko.

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