One World Symphony’s “Defiant:” An Orchestra Resists

On January 22, the night after women across the globe marched in protest of systemic sexism, racism, and homophobia, the NYC-based One World Symphony put on a somewhat spur-of-the-moment concert titled “Defiant,” in partnership with the Mount Sinai Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program. In an anti-racist program that diverged from the otherwise extremely white New York City new music scene, the concert featured works falling within the Western classical realm as well as music of Arabic and Indian traditions. The musicians warming up on stage before the performance began represented a range of racial backgrounds; the audience filing into the space was similarly diverse. Although the players were not impeccable in their delivery of this program, it is one that can (and should) serve as a model for other new music groups who wish to engage in a political dialogue.

The highlight of the evening was a four-movement premiere by the Symphony’s artistic director, composer Sung Jin Hong. Before conducting the piece, Hong told us of the horrors his grandparents had experienced in Japan prior to their immigration to America. On the verge of tears, he explained that revisionist histories had erased the sexual atrocities of World War II, and that these stories were now deliberately forgotten and silenced. Hong then had the audience rehearse our “part” within the symphony: we were all to repeat the words “I have a dream,” starting in a whisper and crescendoing into a shout, gradually drowning out the soft melodies of the orchestra. It is difficult to convey in words how unbelievably moving it was to hear my own voice, among the voices of so many others, repeating the powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King, at first quietly and then growing stronger and louder until it was impossible to distinguish my own voice from all the others.

Sun Jin Hong

Sun Jin Hong

The first movement of the piece, “The River”, began with the words of Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” (“What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”) and a wash of not-quite-dissonance and not-quite consonance. The glacial, large-scale harmonic movement was paired with small-scale oscillations and tremolos. During the second movement, a trumpet broke through the orchestral vagaries to intone a questioning phrase; the clarinets responded yet, as Hong put it, “the question remains unanswered.” During the third movement, a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was projected onto the wall behind the stage; the orchestra underscored Chaplin’s speech with long tones and melancholy chord progressions. During the final movement, “Shaken me to my core,” an array of women vocalists took turns reciting Michelle Obama’s October 13, 2016 speech, in which she denounced the misogynist and abusive actions of Donald Trump without ever saying his name. It was difficult to “perform” the audience part after this, as I had tears and snot freely flowing down my face, but I managed to squeak out a few statements of “I have a dream” before the final drum-heartbeats, howling voices, and violin tremolos hearkened the end of this incredible work.

Other works on the program were just as musically and culturally significant, even if they did not bring on the waterworks. The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York Choir kicked off the concert with a traditional Sanskrit song, Mahishasura Mardini. Following their graceful performance, soprano Laura Farmer, accompanied by piano and cello, sang the somber yet charming “Winter” from Valerie Capers‘s Song of the seasons (1987). Michael Mandrin’s subsequent violin meditation, Sürgün, sounded extemporaneous and meandering—not like a rant, but like a musical musing of the best order. Margaret Allison Bonds’s The Negro speaks of rivers (1942), based on another Langston Hughes poem, was similarly pensive as it wandered through a more familiar tonality. Rob Adler’s classical guitar improvisation Taqsim, inspired by his studies of Arabic Turkish music, offered delicate intricacies before the much more heavy-handed the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Although some of the Symphony’s transitions were slightly clumsy, their playing was well-paced and heartfelt. In a roomful of people who were exhausted from the Women’s March, and stunned by Donald Trump’s inauguration, it was cathartic to hear music that expressed not only beauty, but resistance.