New concerto carries hope to New Orleans

Published 6:56 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Noah. The Lord has raised a mighty wind;

the sea is walking the earth, knockin’ at the levee’s door.

God is at our back.

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No car. No ticket out. Nowhere to run.

Noah gone and left us, Lord, done left us on our own.

So begins the poem “Apres Moi, le Deluge” by Eleanor Wilner, completed within a month of Hurricane Katrina and set to music by Luna Pearl Woolf as a concerto for cello and a cappella choir.

The debut of the 25-minute piece was in April — barely eight months after Katrina — in a Wisconsin performance with cellist Matt Haimovitz and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert Choir.

This week, the musicians are bringing the piece to the land of Katrina with performances on successive days starting Thursday in San Antonio, then Austin, Houston and ending in New Orleans on Sunday. Future performances are planned for Montreal in February and New York in March.

Like the words by Wilner, a Philadelphia poet, the music is a stark expression of disbelief — how could such a biblical disaster happen in 21st century America? The music is at times cutting and angry, sarcastic and pleading, terrifying and mournful. Ultimately, it’s uplifting — it ends with a New Orleans jazz funeral offering the resurrection of the blues in its drowned capital.

Woolf was about to start composing a different concerto for Haimovitz, her husband, with choir accompaniment and text by Wilner when Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005.

“I just couldn’t translate what we had worked on for text into what I had wanted to write for music,” Woolf, 33, said in a telephone interview from her home in Montreal. “I found myself kind of staring at the page, a bit paralyzed.”

“As we started to witness these events unfolding, we just couldn’t get them out of our minds and hearts,” added her 35-year-old husband, who is on the faculty at McGill University.

At Haimovitz’s suggestion, Woolf asked Wilner about her feelings. The poet agreed that a new composition could help them cope with their own raw emotions from the catastrophe.

Within days, Wilner produced the basic text. By January, the piece was completed. It was later recorded on Oxingale Records. The title, which translates to “after me, the flood,” were attributed to France’s unpopular King Louis XV, whose predecessor was Louisiana’s namesake.

“I just felt so compelled through it,” Woolf said. “What was difficult were the more technical things like how does the choir act as orchestra? How does the cello act as both accompaniment for the choir in terms of helping them with their pitches (while also being) the soloist at all times?”

In the end, parts of the music came out as horrifying as the text. Angry tremolos, fitful intrusions, intense dissonance and dizzying runs through disjointed arpeggios illustrate images of drowned shanty canyons, bloated bodies and the terrible buzzing of flies.

How will an audience that suffered through Katrina react?

“I’m hoping it’s a bit cathartic perhaps, and at the same time that there’s a sense of tribute that we’re bringing our expression of what we felt for them, our empathy,” Woolf said. “I can’t say ’understanding’ obviously, because there’s no way one can know. My efforts and Eleanor’s and Matt’s and the choir’s, I hope that that speaks to them — that there’s some comfort in knowing that they’re loved and appreciated from everywhere else in the country.”

Haimovitz doesn’t know if they’ll get a response similar to the one from the Madison audience in April.

“I was kind of amazed by the whole experience because we worked so hard, the choir worked so hard to learn this piece, and I worked hard to learn my part, and somehow everything was just elevated in this performance,” said Haimovitz, who set aside a traditional classical music career to play in alternative settings like pizza parlors, and nightclubs such as New York’s former punk-rock mecca CBGB.

“It kind of took me by surprise that we had successfully gotten through it. And then the audience kind of instinctively and without a lot of fanfare just got out of their seats and just stood up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that for a premiere of a new piece.”

This week’s performances will raise money for the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, which helps musicians still struggling to resume their lives in America’s jazz and blues capital.

“I hope that they take some comfort and to know that even though we’re not from New Orleans and we haven’t suffered what they suffered, we are with them,” Haimovitz said, “that their tradition is important to us, that there are people thinking about how we can prevent something like this down the road and learn from this experience and somehow take some hope from all this.”

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