BWW Review: NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PREMIERES 'FIRE IN MY MOUTH' at David Geffen Hall At Lincoln Center
They came to Ellis Island by the boatload, immigrants from violent countries where staying was not an option. They were sure that America was going to be like Paradise, where everyone would have good work, plenty to eat, and, above all, freedom from persecution. Whole families came, couples came, single young men and women came, most with no passports and little money. But they all had hopes and dreams of a better life.
These immigrants, many of whom hailed from Southern Italy and Eastern Europe, came with skills in their hands, mostly the needle trades. Finding employment at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, hundreds of women (and a fair number of men) spent long hours sitting at sewing machines in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Streets in Greenwich Village, a block away and a world away from Washington Square. This poorly managed, dangerous workplace became the setting for the deadliest industrial accident in New York City history.
The American-born, Pulitzer Prize winning composer Julia Wolfe, has written a tour-de-force oratorio about the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, utilizing a huge cast of singers and instrumentalists. Fire in My Mouth (a quote drawn from an interview with fervent labor activist Clara Lemlich) is an absorbing, emotionally charged and draining hour divided into four parts: Immigration, Factory, Protest, and Fire. These New York Philharmonic performances constituted its world premiere and were part of New York Stories: Threads of Our City.
Using oral histories, folk and protest songs of the period, and eyewitness accounts, Wolfe created the visual and aural world of the time leading up to and including the Fire. The Philharmonic was no mere accompanist -- it became a part of the action. At one point, the strings played some of the "Factory" section using the backs of their bows (called col legno in musical terms) to simulate the sound of sewing machines. In the "Fire" section, the string players created the whoosh sound of the fire by rhythmically waving their bows in the air. 12" Wiss scissors, wielded by a sizable group of choral singers, were opened and closed with the rhythm of the music, providing a startling counterpoint to the voices and to the story. The effect of all this was terrifying.
Minimalist compositional techniques ramped up the tension in the audience. The tautly composed and paced music, complete with 146 singers -- representing the 123 women and 23 men who died in the Fire -built up to an agonizing climax during the Fire sequence.
At times heavily percussive, at times loving and tender, this magnificent composition was a fitting musical memorial to the young workers. The final sequence displayed the complete list of the names of the dead. Each time a name was quietly sung, a chorus member raised her hand to commemorate the victim. This shattering recitation brought the piece to a close. To say it was moving would be a major understatement.
New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Sweden more than kept all the forces together. Female members of the extraordinary Young People's Chorus of New York City sang from the aisles while the women of The Crossing (a formidable, Grammy-winning choir) sang from the rear and front of the stage surrounding the orchestra. The photos and videos were perfectly timed with the text and music, adding a dimension seldom seen in the concert hall.
Fire in My Mouth left an indelible impression on the audience, one that will not soon be forgotten. Brava to Julia Wolfe and everyone who participated in the creation and performances of this exceptional work of art.
The concert opened with Steven Stucky's 2008 composition Elegy, from August 1964. This thoughtful, quiet, and somewhat doleful seven minute work was an appropriate way to begin an evening of great intensity. Clarinetist Anthony McGill next delivered a stellar performance of Aaron Copland's Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra with Harp and Piano (from 1947-49). Originally composed for Benny Goodman, Copland's concerto explores the complete range of the instrument, in the process creating a virtuoso showpiece for only the most able of clarinetists. Mr. McGill, the Principal Clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, was all that and more.