Thursday, February 9, 2012

Subway to Estonia

And then Estonia was conquered . . . .
It seemed that all the dreams were broken.
—Taimi Lepasaar

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 have
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.
On public transportation, anything is possible—the whole gamut from disturbance to delight.

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.

I’m glad I stayed:  Saariaho’s piece Pres, for solo cello and electronics, put Sumire Kudo, the petite cellist of 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:

Beecher is Estonian-American.  His grandmother, Taimi Lepasaar, “was born in Estonia in 1922.  Four years earlier, in the aftermath of World War I, Estonia had achieved independence for the first time.”

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.”

Beecher ultimately took as his text for the oratorio excerpts from interviews with his grandmother and from Kalevipoeg, the Estonian national epic.  Using these elements, he wove a tapestry of music, threaded through with the poignant power of his grandmother’s recorded voice.

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.

Beecher's And Then I Remember draws from the same deep well.  With his grandmother’s voice and stories at its compelling core, Beecher's music evokes the terror and resilience of the Estonian twentieth century with spellbinding grace.

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.  


Rubye Jack said...

Sounds like destiny Susan -- meeting the woman at the fountain only to find her later on the subway so she could introduce you to her son, the composer. And then the story of the Beechers leaving Estonia in the nick of time so that Lembit is able to tell their story with music many years later. How exciting and intriguing!

Herringbone said...

"I began to feel what was really important was my grandmothers voice and her way of telling stories to me, not the historical details of the events described"

I so enjoyed the story. Couldn't get a handle on the music. When I saw the kids at Michigan , I was like, "right on"

I've been with Jerilyn since we were kids. It's not a cop out. Sometimes I like just listening to her voice. It's soothing.

It's not the details but the overall message..I love your energy.

Friko said...

Another fascinating discovery. How do you do it, Susan? Do you have a built-in magnet for unusually talented young people?

The music is riveting, as is the story.

If you continue in this vein you will become the go-to blog for contemporary music and new artists.

shoreacres said...

I kept waiting for a mention of the Estonian Singing Revolution - possibly one of the most extraordinary examples of music as a tool of political resistance in the history of the world. I've not listened yet to all of And Then I Remember - perhaps it is there.

In any event, you might enjoy taking a peek at A Season of Singing Hearts, particularly the video of the Estonians themselves, singing, and Marketa Hankova's remembrances.

Your experiences at the concert and on the subway, And Then I Remember, the Singing Revolution and my corresondence with Marketa all confirm something I've come to believe firmly: everything is connected. All we need do is look, and listen.

Suze said...

Sue, it's lovely that you have Mattingly and Bloom on the sidebar making an appeal for assistance of the realization of their work.

Currently listening to Greenstein introducing the Ecstatic Music Festival. Gave 'And Then I Remember, end of Mvt 1-Mvt 2' the old college try. That was a bit tough for me. (I confess I am intimidated at the prospect of the other movements.)

I'd imagine a PBJ from the driver's wife could have equal excitement as the caviar and the note from the mistress. One never knows what lies beneath the simplest, most unassuming details.

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
such a beautiful quote by Elaine Sexton! And such a coincidence (though I don't believe in coincidences) to meet the composer Lembit Beecher (and his mother first).
First you shared water (I was astonished that they overheat in NY) and then knowledge - you being able to talk about music, because you are a connaisseur (I would have been 'schtumm').
Riding on a subway is always fun - such a lot of very different people to see. I do it in Berlin all the time - though many of my acquaintances look at me as if I'm mad - they take a taxi cab, out of fear - weird.
Now I will listen to your video. Thank you!

Britta said...

Listening to "And then I remembered" is very moving - makes one feel the Angst and isolation and the rightful indignation - (hope that is the right word.)The individual and forlorn voice creates the whole dark atmosphere.

Josie Holford said...

Hauntingly beautiful - the music and story that gave rise to it. O brave world that has such people in it - the composer Lembit Beecher and his grandmother Taimi Lepasaar. Thank-you.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Susan, I really enjoyed listening to (and watching) this performance. I agree, that would have been one to see. Loved listening to Mr. Beecher's grandmother, how the music takes off on the cadences of her voice.

Do you know Steve Reich's 'Different Trains'? The style of music is quite different than this, but it's also a composition based on voice and story.

Someone should write a song about your NY adventure and chance meeting - that's just so great.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. so interesting to read - and talk about co-incidences - how extraordinarily interesting .. and great that you made contact and that you found out more.

Lembit is a name over here - now I know where it originated ... and I read somewhere about some people living in the sewers on the border of ?Poland/Ukraine ... during the Holocaust - they had to endure .. they killed a baby, because it's cries would be heard and they'd be found out ... there were about 20 of them I think ..

Just so wonderful Lembit has recorded his grandmother's life via his work .. and kept her stories for others to read, and hear ..

Beautiful .. cheers Hilary

wanderer said...

Such wonderful names - Lembit Beecher, Taimi Lepasaar - enough in themselves to roll around in my head as savoring a good wine on the palate before becoming immersed in the wholeness of their story.

This has sent me searching - white Russians (as I remember that childhood tag), emigrés, Estonia, occupation, occupation, the singing revolution ... all the while listening to 'And Then I Remember'

The everything / everyone connectedness (shoreacres acknowledged) is the elemental truth of existence surely. Boundaries are imaginary and there to be breached, on subways, at concerts, and with music most of all.

The story of your 'joining' at the concert extending beyond, and further (nothing is by chance) is wonderful and now here we are all holding hands and minds.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
As I have mentioned, on numerous occasions, my cultural forte pales by comparison to your flair and appreciation for classical leanings.
Obviously, New York City is a diverse and wondrous place. A place that you have had many inspirational experiences. And thus, as I continue to delve into your fascinating interests, I wish to thank you for this superb and informative article.
Speaking of underground transport. I have just visited a site where the Moscow Metro system was highlighted. Evidently, an aesthetically pleasing experience.
Thanks Susan.
With much respect, Gary

Jayne said...

Wow, stunning pieces. Very moving. Only in NY, Susan, can you meet so many interesting and creative people. And you never know when or where you'll bump into someone who's doing remarkable work. This is why NY is the greatest city in the country. Probably world.

You seem to attract interesting, talented folks, Susan. But then, you get out to such interesting places, surrounding yourself with culture. You've got a good thing going there. And as always, excellent reportage here. Thanks for bringing Estonia to us. :)

Steve Schwartzman said...

Long-ago New Yorker that I am, your photograph brought back memories of the years when I most often rode the subway, which cost 15¢ in those days, before graffiti and crime on the trains became commonplace. This is the first time I've seen a paid ad on the outside of a train: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I guess the transportation authorities thought.

Susan Scheid said...

Rubye Jack: Whether destiny, I don’t know, but it is one of the many wonderful things about public transportation. This simply cannot happen when all our to-ing and fro-ing is done in the confines of our private cars. Something to bear in mind, isn’t it?

Herringbone: Beecher made exactly the right choice with this piece, and, yes, aren’t the musicians at U. Mich. terrific? I like your observation about your Jerilyn’s voice. Certainly, Lepasaar’s voice here forms the piece’s beating heart, though I would say the piece would not have such tremendous musical power had Beecher not chosen every detail of it as beautifully as he did.

Friko: Well, as you can see, I was pretty thrilled with to discover this! As I wrote already, I owe it all to public transportation (oh, I guess I must add racing out to new music concerts, too). Best of all, though, is to be able to share such a wonderful “find” with you. Riveting is exactly the right word.

shoreacres: Just tonight I watched “The Singing Revolution,” after (of course) rushing over to your “Singing Hearts” post. Thank you for that. While not there directly in And Then I Remember, Beecher’s grandmother’s story is a rich individual account of those harrowing times. We are lucky, in both cases, that someone took the time and had the talent to get the story out so well.

Suze: I love your comment about the PBJ. One never knows, that is sure. And good for you, giving Beecher’s music a go. Perhaps somewhere along the way, you’ll try again, who knows? As I’ve written to you elsewhere, I can only say that I've now listened to this piece now 5 times through, and it keeps yielding up new riches. This, to me, is the ultimate measure of a piece of music, and I believe the riches to be found in this piece, like Mattingly’s Atlas, are, in the end, inexhaustible.

Britta: So glad you enjoyed the bit from Sexton’s Public Transportation. I think she’s a wonderful poet and feel lucky to count her as a friend, as well. Your description of Beecher’s piece is perfect, that “The individual and forlorn voice creates the whole dark atmosphere,” though I will tell you that, at other times, Lepasaar’s recollections are of the purest joy.

Josie: “O brave world,” indeed, and how glad I am to have been in the right place at the right time.

Mark: You’ve put your finger right on the pulse of what makes this music work so well, the way it “takes off on the cadences” of the grandmother’s voice. It makes sense that this brings Reich’s “Different Trains” to mind (which I heard for the first time live, played by none other than Contemporaneous). It’s a very hard thing to weave together music and spoken word to make a satisfying whole, I think, so all the more gratifying when it works, as it does in both Beecher’s and Reich’s pieces. (Amusing to think of someone making a song out of the Subway to Estonia story itself. One never knows, right?)

Hilary: So glad you found this beautiful, too. And yes, what a real gift that Beecher has memorialized his grandmother’s story, and in such a gorgeous and meaningful way.

Susan Scheid said...

wanderer: Oh, yes, aren’t the names themselves bits of music on their own? I like very much where your thoughts go with this, too: “Boundaries are imaginary and there to be breached, on subways, at concerts, and with music most of all.” It is a fine time to be listening to new music, for boundaries are being breached everywhere we turn, to wonderful effect.

Gary: Now, isn’t that interesting about the Moscow Metro system being aesthetically pleasing? I had to take a quick look myself, and I will say it’s got a snazzy logo. Glad you enjoyed another excursion down Prufrock’s quirky lane.

Jayne: Do you think only in New York? I don’t know, it seems interesting and creative people are everywhere (witness you and all my other good friends in the cyberworld). It’s interesting how one thing leads to another—it is really often just a matter of simply “being there” and paying attention a bit.

Steve: Yes, quite the dressed up train, isn’t it (or you might have other words for it . . .)? It seems to be particular to the shuttle trains. Some of them are even more gussied up than this—I road another that was decked out as if it were a cruise ship, inside and out. My thinking is, if it helps keep public transportation running and maintained, so be it.

To all, two stories:

When my Mom read the post, she had an Estonia story of her own. She was part of a geography club, and “slips of paper with the names of several countries were drawn from a basket.” Mom drew Estonia and was given the task of finding it on a map. “Clues were given by Mrs. Barse who read them from the World Book Encyclopedia . . . . And that's how I found Estonia for the first time, probably in 1938. . . . Ever since, the memory crops up each time I run across the name, Estonia.”

I close with Taimi Lepasaar’s words toward the end of the piece: “And then you begin to question, why did it happen this way? Why? Fate is so strange, I feel. When I look back now, everybody is facing difficulties but it still is like a guiding hand that has let me experience the horrible, everything that happened was so terrible, but still like an onlooker who exactly wasn’t destroyed by it, just like being a little bit above, a little touch, but not quite in that soup. Yea. So, in spite of everything. This has been a journey . . .”

Thanks to all of you for riding with me on the Subway to Estonia, and thanks again to Lembit Beecher, his mother, and his grandmother, for leading the way to this thrilling musical ride.

Andrew said...

Hi Susan..
Just a quick thank you for all your lovely comments on my blog..
Big hugs Andrew xx

Elaine Sexton said...

Sue Scheid, cultural critic, strikes again ... with another red-hot, seamlessly rendered post. This critique of a concert only a few experienced in person ... now extends to a few more, who will, in turn, extend it even further! From the water fountain to the subway platform (and everything in between) what a great way to discover and learn, you create these thorough and thoroughly entertaining dispatches. I'm honored to have a few lines of that poem included here. Thank you!

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