Is it possible for the classical music world to make a coherent statement about the struggle for freedom at a time of increasing anti-Semitism, Islamist terror and the growing strength of tyrannies like Iran? To judge by the groupthink in the arts community and critics that endorsed the moral equivalent treatment of terrorists and victims in John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer last year it would be difficult to answer that question in the affirmative. But the release of a new CD titled Freedom from Innova Records gives hope that there is not only a musical response to these challenges that places it on the side of a belief in liberty but offers some dazzling performances of brilliant new as well as newly discovered works.
Flute virtuoso Mimi Stillman, the artistic director of the Dolce Suono Ensemble, a Philadelphia-based chamber group she founded in 2005, is as well known for commissioning new work as she is for playing classics. But the story at the heart of Freedom stems from when Stillman, a close friend of this writer as well as a trained historian, began research at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and was given a copy of work labeled Five Pieces for Flute and Piano by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jewish composer purged by Stalin in the anti-formalist purge of 1948 along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The composition reflects Weinberg’s experiences of loss and persecution under both the Nazis and the Communists. It had not been performed anywhere since 1947 but Stillman gave it its American premiere and now has recorded it for the first time.
Alongside it in Freedom are two pieces Stillman commissioned.
One is by David Finko, a Jewish émigré from the former Soviet Union, whose Sonata for Flute and Piano that, like that of Weinberg also expresses the legacy of suffering at the hands of the Nazis and oppression by the Soviets.
Complimenting it is Richard Danielpour’s Remembering Neda: Trio for Flue, Cello and Piano. An Iranian-American Jew, Danielpour’s piece is dedicated to the memory of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who was gunned down in the Tehran protests against the Islamist regime in 2009 and given its premiere later that year by Dolce Suono.
All three pieces are fascinating explorations of the ability of the musician to portray both suffering and hope. In particular, Weinberg’s fourth movement Melody and Finko’s Lento Assai have moments of searing beauty that are deeply emotional. Danielpour’s work, split into three movements labeled Lamentation, Desecration and Benediction, tackles some of the same themes while also incorporating sounds of Persian music into more traditional classical music forms.
But at the core of this album is the artistry of Stillman and her long time collaborator pianist Charles Abramovic. The pair, along with cellist Yumi Kendall in the Danielpour, has been working together for 14 years and their sensitive, passionate playing plumbs the depths of sorrow and inspiration and serves the composers’ intentions well. At the center of each composition Stillman’s great technical ability and use of color creates a powerful experience for the listener. The result is an essential disc for any chamber fan or even the casual listener of classical music. But it is to Stillman’s work as scholar and curator that the world of music is also now indebted. Her “Freedom” is a powerful statement that at least one corner of the arts community has not lost its conscience. It deserves a larger audience that might otherwise be given to a collection of new chamber music.
FREEDOM: Mimi Stillman, flute and Charles Abramovic, piano with Yumi Kendall, cello.
CD page at Innova: http://www.innova.mu/albums/mimi-stillman-charles-abramovic/freedom
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @TobinCommentary