Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “to open myself, to scream,” inspired by Roma artist and Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka, is at the center of MOR’s May 21 program. “Our mission is to speak out for oppressed people,” says MOR founder Mina Miller.
The story of Europe’s Roma people — a group whose fate during the Holocaust is sometimes overlooked — will be the focus of Music of Remembrance’s (MOR) spring concert on May 21.
“Our mission is to speak out for oppressed people, to give musical witness to all those who have been persecuted. These are the lessons of the Holocaust,” says Mina Miller, a pianist who founded MOR in 1998. Under her artistic leadership, the chamber- music organization has evolved into an impressive incubator of newly commissioned works inspired by the ongoing struggle for human rights.
MOR’s May 21 program will present the world premiere of “to open myself, to scream,” a multimedia chamber work by Mary Kouyoumdjian that pays homage to the legacy of Ceija Stojka (1933-2013), who survived three Nazi death camps and became a noted Roma painter and writer.
Music of Remembrance: ‘to open myself, to scream’
by Mary Kouyoumdjian. 5 p.m. Sunday, May 21, Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $30 (musicofremembrance.org).
Kouyoumdjian, 33, is a first-generation Armenian American, raised in California, whose own family was directly impacted by genocide and the refugee crisis of the Lebanese Civil War. Her musical collaborations often take on such painful topics as the Armenian genocide. One of these, a Kronos Quartet commission titled “Silent Cranes,” deeply impressed Miller, who had been searching for a new voice to address the issue of the Roma community’s persecution in the Holocaust.
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Miller left it open as to how Kouyoumdjian should approach the project. The idea of creating a multimedia portrait of Stojka occurred to her when she encountered the Roma artist’s paintings. In a recent phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, the composer explained that she found herself fascinated by “these two personalities: joyous and celebratory and nostalgic about her free Romani life growing up, but, on the other hand, these horrific, brutally honest paintings of her memories of going through the Holocaust.”
This polarization opened up the basic musical ideas for her four-movement piece, which is scored for a quintet of violin, cello, double bass, clarinet and trumpet (all Seattle Symphony players), as well as an electronic track and visual projection by the Syrian-Armenian, New York-based artist Kevork Mourad. The concert also includes new choreography by Olivier Wevers to music of Osvaldo Golijov.
“Each movement is inspired by a collection of Stojka’s paintings or by a specific painting,” says Kouyoumdjian. “Kevork does a lot of hand-painted animations. He either manipulated photos he took of the paintings or re-created them using his own artistic voice and identity.”
Last fall Kouyoumdjian paid a visit to Seattle to begin working with the musicians. They recorded some of her material, which she proceeded to edit and process to create a playback track. “A common feeling in survivors of genocide is that, while living in the present, they are tied to ghosts from their past,” the composer says. “I wanted the players to actually feel that themselves as they play to the audience, as their live performance is echoed by this pre-recorded material.”
Following the Seattle premiere, MOR will present “to open myself, to scream” at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, part of a recent ongoing partnership that points to the national presence Miller has established for MOR.
Another MOR commission, “After Life,” in which composer Tom Cipullo imagines an encounter between the ghosts of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso, recently won the National Opera Association’s Chamber Opera Award. Jake Heggie, one of the world’s most successful opera composers, has taken on the topic of Nazi persecution of gays in his MOR-commissioned “Out of Darkness: Two Remain.”
“I’m very hesitant to call this a piece about the Roma people going through the Holocaust, because I don’t want to appropriate or speak on behalf of an entire community,” says Kouyoumdjian. “Doing pieces about specific people can be a bridge. Loss of identity and place, mourning — these are things we as humans have experienced whatever the specific circumstances might be. My hope is that audiences connect to Stojka and then that opens to larger issues.”