In her poem Public Transportation, Elaine Sexton reminds us that what we see on the surface may not be what is:
. . . The driver does not haveOn public transportation, anything is possible—the whole gamut from disturbance to delight.
a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his metal
lunchbox. He has caviar left over from New Year's
and a love note from his mistress, whom he just left
on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street.
I’d been to a concert at Scandinavia House. (New York City has many such cultural institutions, and the subway puts them all in ready reach.) The concert was one of those fasten-your-seatbelt types: Listening in Suomi: Magnus Lindberg and the New Finnish Sound with counter)induction.
The auditorium was overheated, a casualty of New York City’s mild winter and the inability of heating systems to adjust. I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the second half, but a piece by Kaija Saariaho, whose work had been recommended by several people I respect, was coming up, so I resolved to try. The key was to find a water fountain and somewhere to cool off.
I wasn’t the only one to make a beeline to the fountain. It was well hidden, but I found my way. I gave out a “hooray,” and a woman behind me followed suit. We exchanged pleasantries about the daunting heat and went our separate ways.
counter)induction, on full display. Belying her delicate looks, her playing was fearless and exact. With Saariaho and a colleague at the electronic controls, it made for an engagingly wild ride.
The last piece was Lindberg’s Clarinet Quintet, and once again, the players of counter)induction were in full command. The clarinetist, Benjamin Fingland, found reserves of breath I didn’t know any human had. They set the place on fire with a wholly different, dazzling kind of heat.
Pleased with my night out, I headed back to Grand Central Station, took a last look at its celestial ceiling, then descended into the subway toward home. On the subway, I spotted a familiar-looking woman I couldn’t quite place. A young man stood in front of her, hanging from a strap. I went over and hazarded asking whether they’d been at the concert. They had, and she was the woman I’d met at the water fountain.
I asked what she thought. She pointed to the young man (her son, as it turned out) and said he was the one to ask. We started up a conversation, and two young actors seated nearby joined in. It transpired that her son was a composer. Cards were exchanged, and I asked if I might have one, too.
Lembit Beecher was the composer's name, and his oratorio And Then I Remember had been performed in New York City on the weekend just past. When I got home, I looked him up. This is what I found:
Estonia’s independence didn’t last. It passed from Russian to German and back into Russian hands in World War II. Lepasaar, along with her parents, husband, and daughter (Beecher’s mother), “left on the last ship out of the country before the Russians returned and sealed the borders.” Lepasaar's husband did not survive the war.
“A few years ago,” Beecher writes, “I asked my grandmother if I could record her stories with the idea of possibly building a piece around them.” Beecher’s original idea for the piece “was to emphasize the documentary side of the stories.” As he worked on the project, he reconsidered. “I began to feel that what was really important was my grandmother’s voice and her way of telling stories to me, not the historical details of the events described.”
More than the concert at Scandinavia House, more than the concert at Carnegie Hall and the opera at the Met I attended that same week, Beecher’s was the concert I wish I’d known about and had been able to attend.
I thought of composer Dylan Mattingly and the thrilling musical voyage his Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island maps out, about the way Atlas speaks directly to the human spirit, yielding up rich gifts from a deeply human place. It's music I stop for and give my full attention to, music I've reveled in at each hearing and want to hear again.
Harrowing and poignant, tender and hopeful, shot through with love and loss, it’s all there. And, with thanks to Lembit Beecher, it’s all available here and here.
Words and music by Lembit Beecher. © Lembit Beecher. Live video and editing by Kristin Fosdick. Filmed live at the University of Michigan video studio on March 27th and 28th 2009, featuring soprano Mary Bonhag, double bassist Evan Premo, conductor Robert Boardman and University of Michigan singers and instrumentalists.
<<<>>>Credits: The quotation at the head of the post is text from Lembit Beecher's And Then I Remember. The quotation from Public Transportation is from Elaine Sexton's book of poems Sleuth, which can be found here, along with the complete text of the poem. The quotations about Lepasaar's life and And Then I Remember can be found here.
The photograph in the subway is mine. The photograph of counter)induction can be found here. The image from the Kalevipoeg, Kalev’s Son in the Netherworld, can be found here. The remaining images are stills from the videos at the end of the post, which can also be found here.