“Music Beyond Borders”: Seattle Symphony hastily arranged a free sonic protest of President Trump’s travel ban — for a packed house at Benaroya Hall Wednesday — with music from Syria, Iraq, Iran and beyond.
“Falling in love,” said Syrian composer Kinan Azmeh, “is one of the few human rights no authority can take away from you.”
He was speaking just hours before an unusually raucous and emotional night at Benaroya Hall, where Seattle Symphony Orchestra had hastily arranged a free concert Wednesday night (titled “Music Beyond Borders: Voices from the Seven”) in response to President Trump’s travel ban against seven “Muslim-majority” countries, playing music from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan.
Azmeh, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, had quickly booked a flight into Seattle to play clarinet in a haunting and mellifluous accompaniment with the orchestra that veered between two movements he described as “homesickness” and a joyous “wedding party.”
He had been in Beirut for a performance when Trump’s travel ban was announced in late January and wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to get home to New York — even though he has a green card — where he’s lived and worked for 16 years. “In that kind of moment,” he said, “you have to ask: ‘What do you do? Do you send someone to your apartment in Brooklyn to pack all your stuff?’ It’s incredible that one signature can shatter a life, just like that. But I think of all the students, the patients coming here for medical treatment, you name it. Think of the people who’ve been separated from their families. This story is much bigger than my little one.”
At least one quarter of SSO musicians are immigrants, said principal trumpet player David Gordon, and they felt an urgency to respond to President Trump’s executive order. Shortly after the travel-ban announcement, Gordon said, “I wound up in an elevator with (SSO Vice President) Elena Dubinets and made an elevator pitch: ‘Music is a global community … Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something about this?’”
The SSO administration agreed, and the organization leapt into action. Normally, said symphony CEO Simon Woods (who was born in London), SSO plans concerts two or three years in advance. But this was a “high-speed process … in difficult and complicated times, what do we do? We don’t respond with words, we respond with music. Music starts to speak when words finish — and finding the right words are difficult in a time like this.”
Somali pop singer Samatar Yare — who fled his home country’s civil war in 2001 and now drives an Uber car in Seattle between international tours — put it more directly, just before the concert. “We want to show the world that we here are stronger! We stand together, and we will fight until the last minute. We’re not going to let anyone divide us: no, no, no!”
Since President Trump’s inauguration, arts organizations have scrambled to respond. New York’s Museum of Modern Art yanked part of its permanent collection — including paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Picabia — and replaced them with works by Ibrahim el-Salahi (Sudan), Zaha Hadid (Iraq), Tala Madani (Iran) and others. But, Woods said, SSO was the only major orchestra he knew of to wrangle a quick-turn, multinational concert like “Music Beyond Borders.”
Seattle’s culture community responded — within four hours, he said, all the tickets had been taken.
On the night of the performance, a long line of people waited for standby seats while others headed into the symphony’s rehearsal hall to watch the concert live-streamed. “There are definitely some who haven’t been here before,” said 12-year SSO security guard SaLarry Jefferson. “I can recognize the regular symphony people.”
In the main hall, the audience roared with laughter and applause as Gordon gave an introduction for one piece — by Iranian composer Gity Razaz — titled “Metamorphosis of Narcissus.”
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It was, Gordon said, about “Narcissus’ obsessive self-infatuation … and transformation into the Narcissus flower.” He looked surprised by the audience’s hoots and hollers, but the crowd knew who it was laughing at. “Boo Trump!” somebody in the back yelled. Janet Hesslein, a social worker and spouse of the evening’s accordionist, leaned over and said with a hint of glee: “This is not your usual symphony audience.”
The concert ended with “America the Beautiful,” led by local soul singer Shaina Shepherd and SSO conductor Ludovic Morlot (another symphony immigrant, born in France) making a surprise guest appearance on violin. During the latter verses of the song, with lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates and music by choirmaster Samuel A. Ward, a few audience members started to cry: “America! America!/God mend thine every flaw/confirm thy soul in self-control/thy liberty in law!”
That afternoon, during the symphony’s sound check, the composer Azmeh talked about feeling both welcomed and homesick when he attended his first Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S.
“It’s a tricky feeling,” he explained. “Am I supposed to be feeling home away from home, or am I betraying my original home with that feeling? But I think the feeling of home is expandable, flexible. And the more inclusive your idea of home, the better you are and feel in general. Seeing this initiative from the musicians in the orchestra — people not affected by the ban feel the need to stand up for people who are affected, standing up for what they believe in. This is what home should be about, people standing up for each other. I don’t want to just say slogans or cliches, but I’m very, very grateful to be here and for what these musicians are doing.”