NICHOLE JIANG – STAFF WRITER
As the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra takes the stage for one of their last concerts of the season and the last concert under the baton of conductor Rossen Milanov, the audience will get to experience a program that will leave a lasting impact at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 12 in the Amphitheater.
Composer Carlos Simon said he was driven to write his piece, “An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave,” by the feelings of hatred, discrimination and racism in today’s society. Opening up tonight’s concert, this piece “speaks to current events and events that need to be spoken about, acknowledged and recognized,” said concertmaster Vahn Armstrong.
Music has always been a part of Simon’s life, and at a young age he realized the ability that music had to not only express emotions, but to connect people.
“I started writing music in my father’s church. I started playing the organ, and I would just improvise while my dad was preaching at services,” Simon said. “I just really saw the power of music, and how it connected people, and how it tapped into emotions in the church and congregation. I wanted to take that a little further and write music of my own, and write for the orchestra. It’s been a lifelong journey just to understand the orchestra and how to write for it, because it’s a very complex organism.”
Simon was named one of the 2021 recipients for the Sphinx Medal of Excellence.
“I wrote the piece in 2014, and this was around the same time that it just seems like so many Black men and Black women were being murdered by police,” Simon said. “I remember vividly seeing the protests, and when the verdict came down, particularly Freddie Gray, then Trayvon Martin, I had so many mixed feelings, and I didn’t know what to do. … I was angry, frustrated and even confused, and so I went to music. This was the only thing that I knew would give me some sense of an outlet and release. That’s how I wrote the piece in 2014, and then here we are in 2021, and the same things are happening. And it really saddens my heart to see these things happen, but it’s why music is there — to have these conversations.”
The title itself represents the lives that were taken too early as a result of hate.
“These were young men and young women who had their whole lives ahead of them. And so I just imagined them crying; I was crying,” Simon said. “I imagined crying from the grave and having so much life to live. … Racism and white supremacy and these elements are very much embedded in our culture and our society, and lives are lost because of it.”
Simon wrote the piece not only for victims of racism, but for himself as well. He is heartened by the discussions that the music has sparked.
“The very fact that people are talking about these issues and wanting to make change in the policing systems, it means a great deal,” Simon said. “The issues are still present, but there’s some progress happening, and I think one takeaway that I’d like listeners to engage in is to listen to the piece, but also think about the impact, and how we can change our society. That’s the whole point of why I write music. I want to see a better place. I want to leave this place better than I found it.”
The musicians of the CSO are looking forward to performing Simon’s composition in the Amp.
“It’s beautifully written, and it’s very tonal and melodic,” said violinist Ming Gao. “This piece is for the people that were wrongfully murdered, and as a human and as a musician myself, I can feel the expression and emotion. It has such great depth, and you can immediately sense the pain and emotion.”
The concert will then end with a performance of Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite” for strings and percussion, a ballet arrangement of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen.
Considered by many as one of the greatest operas, Carmen is set in Southern Spain and tells the story of a soldier, Don José, who falls in love with the titular Carmen. The pair run away, but just two months later, Carmen grows tired of the young soldier and turns her attention to a bullfighter named Escamillo. In a fit of jealousy and rage, Don José ends up stabbing Carmen. She dies in the arms of Escamillo.
“People know the story, and you can imagine exactly what’s happening with the music,” Gao said.
Many of the musicians have played the original score of Carmen, if not Shchedrin’s suite.
“It’s very likely that we played Carmen in the youth orchestra,” Armstrong said. “It’s what you do, and so there are these licks that we’ve really been playing all our lives. … In this arrangement, they just get kicked up a notch or two, and just upping the ante on all of these tunes, so I am really looking forward to it.”
This arrangement is not only unique because of its merging of Shchedrin’s style with the classic Bizet opera, but because of the pairing of the string section and spotlight on percussion.
“I’m very excited to get to play this one,” said percussionist Pedro Fernandez. “I’ve known about this for many, many years, and it just hasn’t come up in the places where I have worked before. This one is very percussion heavy, and has all the main things of the opera Carmen. It’s very difficult, it’s very involved and requires a lot of individual practice.”
The instrumentation includes a huge variety of percussion instruments that result in textures, colors and sounds that the audience has never heard before. Fernandez himself is playing several different instruments, including the marimba, cymbals, tambourine, vibraphone and wood blocks.
“They’re not the sounds that you associate with a standard symphony orchestra, so it’s very exciting. A lot of Russian composers write excellently for the percussion section, so I’m not surprised that this arrangement is also spectacular in that way,” Fernandez said.
This piece is fitting for the CSO’s last week on the Amp stage. Looking back on this condensed season, the musicians are happy to have had the opportunity to perform onstage together again.
“I think we had a wonderful series of concerts this summer,” Armstrong said. “My colleagues and the Chautauqua Symphony remain an inspiration. They’re tremendous musicians from all around the world.”