Postcard from the Artistic Director: Troop 6000

This week’s postcard from AD Lisa Bielawa considers the role of music and community in some of the most challenged societies.

Dear SFGC Friends,

The program from the world premiere of Messiaen’s masterpiece, at the Görlitz prison camp in 1941

It has been wonderful to hear from our colleagues, the girls, audience members, parents and alumnae over the past couple of weeks, following up on their experiences of our whirlwind trip to NYC and Washington, DC. For those of you who reached out – thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us! And extra thanks to our tour Postcard writers, Gabby Vulakh and Elizabeth Easton, who did so much to help you all feel like you were really on the road with us!

Back in NYC now, I am writing a piece for instrumental trio – piano, French horn and flute – and wondering how I ever got myself into that absurd situation in the first place. Piano, horn and flute? What was I thinking???

But then I had the humbling and very moving experience of hearing another piece written for an unusual assemblage of instruments: attending a “house concert” in a historic Chelsea brownstone, a special presentation of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” which was written while he was a prisoner at a German internment camp in 1941 – for clarinet, piano, violin and cello, i.e., the instruments played by whatever fellow musical prisoners he encountered there. It’s an amazing story – a prison guard smuggled paper and ink into his cell, even one of the instruments had to be borrowed from citizen of the nearby town.

You can read a fuller account here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quatuor_pour_la_fin_du_temps
And also here, in a review of a performance that featured Rebecca Rischin, a clarinetist with whom I went to high school in SF. (At Lowell, by the way!)

Our friend Joshua Roman was the one who assembled the musicians I heard – and they included pianist Conor Hanick, who had just played with The Knights and SFGC a couple of weeks earlier! So – some common friends. Here’s the short first movement of the piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zr9QMnXi9LQ

Does this sound like something written in a prison? Why or why not? The clarinet and violin play short little phrases over and over again – do these remind you of a sound in nature? What is the mood of this music? Do these four instruments sound like they belong together?

As I listened to the piece (which is around 50 minutes long, in eight movements), I thought about how the 20 or so of us, sitting comfortably there in this lovely house, were in such different circumstances from the audience at the premiere – prisoners and prison staff – but how the piece seems to address us in our own search for meaning, just as it spoke to that audience in theirs. Transcendent experiences, like the kind one can get from listening to music, can help anyone from any kind of life – whether comfortable or stark, healthy or ailing, tormented or exultant, in her or his search for meaning.

It reminded me of this recent story that circulated the news here in NYC around the same time as the house concert, about the first-ever Girl Scouts troop for homeless girls.

Food, shelter, water, employment – these are basic needs that our society struggles to meet for all of its members. But what about music for prisoners? Art and fellowship for these homeless girls? Are the arts really a “luxury,” as some in our government claim? Why is it that, even when some of the most basic needs are not met within human societies, things like the Quartet for the End of Time, or Girl Scout Troop 6000, still burst forth from the human spirit?

Questions best answered, at least for me, by a trio for piano, horn and flute, perhaps…

Yours,

Lisa

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