Blog from trip to Maastricht and Germany.
There are times when one follows one’s heart, not knowing all the ramifications of the step taken. Such was the case with my trip to Maastricht to meet Mirel Iancovici and his cello student ensemble, I Multicelli.
Mirel, a world-class virtuoso cellist who teaches at the conservatory in Maastricht, The Netherlands, was searching the internet for a composition for cello related to 9/11 and found my In Memoriam September 11. After listening to Bob Jesselson’s beautiful recording from the online “September 11 Musical Gallery,” Mirel contacted me about performing it for concerts in Germany and Holland commemorating the 10th anniversary of September 11. He also expressed interest in possibly making an arrangement for his cello ensemble from the version for cello and strings.
By way of introduction, Mirel sent me a CD of his performances of several works for solo cello and winds, including works by Ibert, Martinu, Hrisande, and Gulda. I was blown away by his virtuoso playing and expressivity. I was very excited to find such a marvelous performer.
I didn’t realize at the time that Mirel specializes in making his own arrangements for multiple celli, and has an ensemble called I Multicelli which performs these arrangements. From a composition for solo cello and 5 violins, 2 violas, cello and double bass, all on independent parts (originally composed for Ina Esther Joost and King David Strings, and subsequently performed by Chistopher Johns and the Tallis Chamber Orchestra with multiple strings per part), Mirel created an arrangement for solo cello and 6 celli! Using cello harmonics and double stops, he was able to cover all the pitches, with minor adjustments in register. When I examined his score—as the composer I felt an obligation to proof the arrangement to make sure it could represent the piece—I was amazed at the intricacy of the arrangement, and the skillful way it used the capabilities of the cello.
Knowing how much time and care this must have taken, I felt drawn to travel to Maastricht to meet this cello virtuoso and arranger who had devoted so much effort to my music. I love the version for cello and strings, and was curious to see if Mirel’s cello choir arrangement could capture that same ambience, and enable more performances of the piece. Sharon Robinson, the amazing cellist who is now teaching at Indiana University, had already expressed excitement about the possibility of a cello choir arrangement of this composition for her students at Indiana University.
I spoke with Mirel by phone, in preparation for the trip, and it seemed like we were already old friends. I bought my plane ticket, and off I went!
Once in Holland, Mirel and his wife Anca took me under their wings, providing my every need. The first day, I met with the students at the Conservatory for a rehearsal. I was quite tired from the trip, so they did my piece first.
After hearing it, I felt I wanted to explain some of the context of the piece, especially why I wrote the slow downward glissandi, and how I felt watching the fall of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In recounting that day, I was taken back to that moment and to my surprise, re-lived it with the students in an emotional re-telling.
The following is an excerpt from my letter to Mirel and the students:
“From my first day in Maastricht, and our encounter at our first rehearsal, it was evident that this would be a special relationship. It was clear from the emotions that poured from me in recounting the experience of 9/11 that our process would be about more than the music, and at the same time, that the music would be our vessel for containing and communicating these deeply felt emotions.”
The next day we all traveled to Germany, in several vehicles, each carrying two people and one or two celli. (I went with Mirel, the only car with one cello.) After the two-hour car trip, we checked into our hotel (provided by our sponsors in Gladbeck) and went to the Martin Luther Forum Ruhr where we could rehearse and prepare for the three concerts in Bottrop, Gelsenkirchen, and Gladbeck.
Berta Hamza, who organized all the concerts, greeted us with enthusiasm. Berta’s daughter is Felicia Hamza, Mirel’s youngest student at age 16, who was the soloist for Mirel’s arrangement of the Bruch Kol Nidre during the concerts. Felicia’s father, the renowned cellist Jan Hamza, was her teacher since the age of 4, and she recently began studying with Mirel. (I had met Felicia at Mirel’s home where she was staying in order to be at all the rehearsals in Maastricht. Her name perfectly—happy!)
I first heard Felicia play during the Friday afternoon rehearsal. Her tone is full and not at all forced, very free. Her cello is lovely, and she plays with the natural ease of someone who lives and breathes with the instrument. Mirel was still coaching her on some details and expressive nuances, but it was clear from the first phrase that she is a major talent!
Berta and Jan invited me to their home Friday night so I could observe Shabbat with them. They live close enough to the hotel that I could walk back, with Berta accompanying me. Jan is Jewish, born in Tunisia and lived in Israel before coming to Holland—I spoke in Hebrew to Jan and in English to Berta. We had a delightful evening together, with challah and kosher wine provided by the Jewish community of Gelsenkirchen, through Judith Neuwald-Tabasch, president of that community.
The next morning, I walked over to the rehearsal after davening the Shabbat prayers privately. (There is no synagogue in Gladbeck.) The musicians went to perform in Bottrop later in the afternoon, and I remained at the hotel until the end of Shabbat. We were together again after the concert, which they reported went very well. They loved the acoustics in the small Martinskirche (church) in Bottrop (see photo attached).
On Sunday, I finally got to hear the performance in two concerts, one at the Neue (New) Synagogue in Gelsenkirchen, and the second and final one at the Martin Luther Forum in Gladbeck.
I rode with Mirel to Gelsenkirchen in a light rain—it’s about 20 minutes from Gladbeck. I was impressed to see the Neue Synagogue, a lovely and, true to its name, new building. The majority of the congregation is of Russian origin. Judith told me there had been a bar mitzvah on Shabbat. I was quite impressed by the beautiful sanctuary upstairs and the concert hall/function room downstairs. I took some photos, which I’ll try to post here.
Judith herself is from Germany, and her mother was one of a few survivors from a kerosene plant fire during the War. She was attending the annual memorial service near that site later on the same day as the concert, since the event occurred around September 11 as well. It was a full and emotional day for Judith.
The concert went quite well, with a lovely introduction by Judith and eloquent closing remarks from the mayor of Gelsenkirchen. Young students from the congregation read brief texts between the compositions.
I had two special guests at the concert in the synagogue—Christiane Meininger and Gesa Biffio. Christiane, a flutist from near Cologne, had corresponded with me via email about some possible collaborations, and I was happy to finally have a chance to meet her. We had arranged to spend some time together in Cologne on Monday, rightly anticipating that there would not be much time after the concert on Sunday. Gesa, a cellist and composer who also lives near Cologne, had contacted me via internet about In Memoriam for solo cello (the original version) which she included in her doctoral thesis about new works for solo cello.
Gesa, it turns out, was also a cello student of Mirel in Maastricht! Mirel had invited her to the concert, too, and she came with her husband and two of their daughters. She and her family came back to Gladbeck after the concert to join us for lunch at the hotel, and we had a lovely visit. I had connected Gesa with Ina Esther Joost, and they have since developed a close friendship, so I was happy to hear of that as well. It turns out Ina Esther was traveling in Germany during this same week, but her performances were in a rather remote area of Germany, so we were not able to see each other.
We then rested in preparation for the 6 p.m. final concert at the Martin Luther Forum Ruhr in Gladbeck. Sound check at 5 p.m. was good. I just asked for minor adjustments to accommodate the acoustics of the room—quieter murmuring after first glissando, and a long legato line overlapping celli for last glissando.
At the last minute, I got up the courage to ask if I could address the audience briefly. Dr. Baldzione, who directs the music program at the Forum, offered to introduce me after his welcoming remarks. Luckily, Judith Neuwald-Tabasch offered to translate my comments into German for the audience. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to be part of the presentation on a personal level, in addition to the music itself.
I thanked our hosts for the warm welcome we had received, and recounted my vivid memory from 9/11 of the slow fall of the World Trade Center towers, and how the slow glissando in the strings accompaniment mirrors that fall. It seemed to represent the loss of an external anchor, leaving us with the sense that we only have each other and the love of an open heart. We hoped the music would help convey that love.
The mayor of Gladbeck spoke about the significance of 9/11, but I’m sorry I can’t relate them to you because of my lack of German comprehension.
The performance which followed, punctuated with longer readings by high school age students, was one of the most moving concerts I can recall experiencing. Here is what I wrote to Mirela nd I Multicelli afterwards:
“…the performance Sunday night, the culmination of all our rehearsals, and the final performance of the tour. This is an evening etched in my heart. A performance of such depth is truly rare, and I’m not just speaking of my composition, but the entire performance. I was in tears from the sheer beauty of the music for most of the concert. When it came to my own composition, I could hardly remain within the confines of my chair–the intensity was so great, the expression so heart-felt. It seemed that you were truly creating the tsunami of goodness that I spoke of Friday night, which this world needs so desperately. What a privilege to create this together.”
Later, Mirel added this observation in a letter to me:
“The miracle, I think, was that through your music born as a reflection on a heartbreaking and unspeakable tragedy we were able to create an profoundly spiritual and unforgettable event which marked our memory and will stay with us forever. We transcended the horror and ”in memoriam” became ”to life”, L’ chaim.”
(I can only say Baruch HaShem, thank G-d.)
I just heard from Berta Hamza that a video was made of the performance. She doesn’t have it yet, but will send it to me. When I receive it, I’ll post the video to share with you. You have to see/hear this performance! Meanwhile, to hear Bob Jesselson’s solo cello recording and that of Chris Johns and the Tallis Chamber Orchestra, click here. Felicia sent me a photo of the group performing in Bottrop which I’m posting here.
September 21, 2011