World Premier: Wu Fei’s Hello Gold Mountain at Ingram Hall

Soaked to the bone by the torrential rains that accompanied my walk to Vanderbilt’s Ingram Hall, I sank, rather damply, into my seat and began to scribble some notes on the topic of requiems in the now half disintegrated notebook that accompanied me to Chatterbird’s premier of Wu Fei‘s Hello Gold Mountain on Saturday, a piece the composer describes as “a requiem for the lost possibilities of the Jewish community in Shanghai”. Those notes I have since disregarded because too many words can, so easily, do a disservice to the truth and at this point in the experience they hang round my neck more like a millstone than a medal. And that is because Hello Gold Mountain is, at—and in—its heart, so simple.

I don’t mean simple in the sense that anyone off the street could play it. That is far from the truth. There’s an argument to be made that Hello Gold Mountain is as much a double concerto for oud and guzheng as it is a piece for chamber ensemble. Cadenza-like passages in multiple movements highlight the virtuoso touch and technique of oudist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and the composer herself at the guzheng. I mean “simple” in the sense that the truth behind the piece seems so basic, so fundamental, that it could be—perhaps should be—taken as a given.

For many years leading up to the Second World War, Shanghai was often one of the only ports open to Jewish refugees fleeing an increasingly troubled European continent. Those refugees, thousands of them, were all crammed into a small area in Shanghai which came to be known as the Shanghai Ghetto. The story is not familiar to many today, myself included, but it is the inspiration for Wu Fei’s most recent large-scale work. Of course, a requiem is, traditionally, a mass for the dead. The form may very from one tradition to another, sacred to secular, but the general purpose remains the same, whether dedicated to an individual, the victims of a tragedy, or humanity as a whole. But can one hold a requiem for that which never happened?

When thinking back on Hello Gold Mountain, it is hard for me not to draw comparisons to another “Jews in exile” piece of relatively recent memory, Osvaldo Golijov’s Grammy-nominated song cycle Ayre. But what I think is most interesting about that comparison is not what they have in common, but how they differ. Hello Gold Mountain does not dip heavily (or really at all) into the klezmer tradition the way Golijov did in Ayre (and just about everything else he was writing at the time). Perhaps those are just the quirks of the individuals who wrote them, maybe it’s the difference between a Jewish composer’s approach and a Chinese composer’s approach to the topic. But I’m inclined to believe there is more at play.

Hello Gold Mountain relies heavily on two instruments, the oud (a lute-like instrument with roots in the Middle East) and the guzheng (the Chinese take on the zither family, this one with 21 strings). (By now, I’m sure you’ve realized that the oud here represents the Jewish refugees and the guzheng their eventual destination in Shanghai.) Separately, in the hands of their respective players, the two featured instruments provide their share of memorable moments. Blumenkranz’s solo passages on the oud often approach the level of poetry, with just enough rhythmic flexibility to convey the fear and trepidation of a refugee bound for the unknown. One can feel the pull of gravity (or is that destiny?) in his runs. Wu’s playing is, as always, haunting, often with the weight of generations behind it. But where she truly sets herself apart is when she pushes the guzheng to its limits, attacking the strings in an aggressive, almost violent manner.

But where Hello Gold Mountain really hits its stride is not in the solo passages, remarkable though they may be. It is when the guzheng and the oud step back and melt into one another becoming, at times, nearly indiscernible from each other when I think the true depth of the piece is revealed. It is then, when the unique and beautiful characteristics of the individual instruments join together to create something new and exciting, that we get a glimpse of the elusive “possibilities” Wu refers to in her description of the piece. But those moments, like the Jewish refugee community of Shanghai, are fleeting. And it is their impermanence that we mourn here.

At one point, midway through the performance, it became evident that one of the strings on Blumencranz’s oud had been rendered somewhat out of tune. It was then that Wu appeared to hold a trill on her guzheng for quite some time while he worked to get back in tune and then, with a nod to the conductor, they were off again. It is perhaps a cheap metaphor, one performer supporting the piece while another regains his footing before continuing on together, but I’m going to run with it anyway.

With the war over and continuing political unrest in China, the Jewish community in Shanghai began to disperse. Some relocated to the newly formed Jewish state of Israel. Others continued on to San Francisco, known in Chinese as “Old Gold Mountain” to begin a new life in America. And even though it is now a much neglected story, the Shanghai Ghetto remains an important chapter in the Jewish wartime experience and warrants wider retelling. Hello Gold Mountain is an important step in the sharing of that story.

As the final movement of Hello Gold Mountain wound to a close, the house lights came up for a communal singing of a brief melody printed in the program. As the house lights dimmed once again and Chatterbird performed the final strains themselves, the stage lights changed to a golden hue. The color of “Old Gold Mountain”, to be sure, but also the color of sunrise and of the dawn of new possibilities.

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