GREAT BARRINGTON — It has taken Close Encounters With Music three attempts to get Israeli composer Tamar Muskal’s new work “One Earth” to the concert stage.
After two postponements due to the pandemic, the Close Encounters With Music commission will finally receive its world premiere on Nov. 6 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.
Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani has gathered an eclectic array of musicians to perform Muskal's three-movement composition.
The renowned Borromeo String Quartet and Hanani, a cellist, will form a quintet, appearing alongside Grammy-nominated progressive hip-hop artist, multi-instrumentalist and beatboxing vocal percussionist Christylez Bacon, and tabla player Avirodh Sharma. Choral Director Rachel Feldman will lead the 22-member Mount Holyoke College Chamber Singers, with international conductor and educator Tianhui Ng completing the ensemble.
This is Muskal’s second commission for CEWM; her first was a short tribute to Sojourner Truth at a 2017 concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York.
As Hanani explained in a recent phone interview, a friend’s son had casually suggested that a hip-hop artist might interest younger people in CEWM’s concerts. “I thought, we can’t just program a rapper next to Beethoven and Schubert,” Hanani said, “but what if we commissioned a composer to incorporate this vocal tradition into a larger piece?”
When approached, Muskal was very excited about the idea and took it even further.
“It became a beautiful adventure and challenge for all of us,” Hanani said. “Tamar specializes in world music, she’s very open to African and Islamic and Far Eastern traditions and sonorities, different instrumental colors. She was the ideal person to write this type of universal, cosmic piece of music.”
Described as a progressive hip hop artist, Washington, DC-based Bacon collaborates widely with musicians of different cultural backgrounds, from Egypt to Brazil. He recently shared the bill and performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma in West Virginia.
Hanani described the tabla, an Indian twin drum set, as “fascinating, very sophisticated."
"Players have their own systems, an ancient tradition of rhythmic patterns and scatting with their voice,” he said.
The Mount Holyoke chorus sings a poetic text written by Muskal’s longtime collaborator Stavit Allweis, an Israeli author, artist and filmmaker.
“It’s extremely optimistic, a hopeful plea for a harmonious planet,” Hanani said.
It may sound overly utopian, he said — especially in view of what’s going on around the world these days — but even Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony ended with Schiller’s positive declaration, “Alle Menschen Werden Brüder" — "All People Shall Become Brothers."
“So she’s not alone in this vision, in spite of everything. And I thought, let’s not give up on this message," Hanani said.
Muskal certainly didn’t give up on the commission, even after so many stops and restarts. Over several years, “One Earth” has seen multiple changes of instrumentation and personnel: a marimba became a tabla, a solo cello became a quintet, children’s voices became a women’s choir.
“Each time we started anew, we discussed it again, and it evolved,” said Muskal by phone from her home in New York City. After attending Conservatory in her native Jerusalem, Muskal and her artist husband moved to the United States three decades ago to study, she at Yale, he at NYU, where he now teaches.
Over the years, Muskal has created works for a wide range of instrumentation, from solo viola and cello to full orchestra, and has included Middle Eastern instruments such as ney and oud. Her 2005 work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “The Yellow Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“‘One Earth’ is written very carefully,” she said of the 20-minute piece, “like a little gem, very precise.”
“The reason I like working with musicians from different disciplines,” she added, “is they are very educated, smart and talented, but they improvise. It gives the piece a freedom that would not be there otherwise.”
The rapping, beatboxing and tabla weave in and out of “One Earth” as part of the ensemble. When they improvise, however, they stand alone.
“I gave [Bacon] the freedom to write what he wants,” she said. “It’s connected to everything else.”
Hanani had requested that any text not be political, Muskal said. When she relayed that to Bacon, “he said, well, everything we do in some ways is political.”
Muskal asked Allweis to write her words “from a good emotion.”
“I had this vision, a perspective of being far away, like a spaceship that gets closer and closer to the planet and transitions from space to Earth,” Muskal said. “This is the introduction the choir sings. When we reach Earth, then the strings come in.”
“Music was always a big part of me, since I was a baby,” she said.
Originally intending to be a performer, while being evaluated at Conservatory “I got into the wrong room,” she said, and found herself among composers and conductors. “Until then, I didn’t know there was such a thing as contemporary classical music. The first time I heard Bela Bartok, I listened to it 30 times. I was like a child in a candy store, I felt so close to it immediately, really at home. The first piece I wrote was inspired by Bartok.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, her father was also from Hungary.
Muskal has written for voice many times — she is currently working on an opera — but this is the first time she has written for a choir since Conservatory.
“I really like instrumental music, so I never missed it,” she said. “But now, writing this piece, it’s very exciting.”
Collaborating with fellow Israeli Hanani, “is comfortable for me,” she said. Both speak Hebrew, and understand each other’s native humor and outspokenness.
“I really appreciate his interest in new music,” she added. “He’s very curious, which brings beautiful, fresh programs. And the performers are always amazing.”
For the second half of Sunday’s concert, Hanani chose a more traditional — yet equally transcendent — chamber music offering, Franz Schubert’s “String Quintet in C Major,” performed by Borromeo String Quartet and Hanani.
Hanani has programmed Borromeo for CEWM several times in the past. They were very much into this adventure, he noted, and said yes right away to the varied program.
“The Schubert is a sublime piece of music that everybody loves to play,” he said. “There are mysterious, amazing moments, it dives into the soul.”
Schubert wrote the Quintet as he was dying, Hanani noted, but the composer never heard it and it wasn’t performed for 25 years.
“As outgoing as Muskal’s piece is, the Schubert is ingoing and introverted,” said Hanani, a longtime educator known for informative, often entertaining program introductions from the concert stage.
After so many postponements, Hanani is “elated” to finally be able to present “One Earth” to the CEWM audience. Seeing the world with no borders is even more relevant now than before, he explained.
“You know who taught us this lesson more than anybody else? This little virus. It said to us, 'you are living on one planet, whether you like it or not,'" Hanani said.
“With the state of the world in general,” he added, “we try to maintain our human values, our ideals about music, and the redeeming powers of art.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Otherworldly Schubert and ‘One Earth’”
With Borromeo String Quartet; Yehuda Hanani on cello; progressive hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon, Avirodh Sharma on tabla; Tianhui Ng, conductor; Rachel Feldman, choral director; Mount Holyoke College Chamber Singers.
Who: Close Encounters With Music
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6
Tickets: $52, orchestra/mezzanine; $28, balcony; $15, students
Information: 413-528-0100, cewm.org
COVID-19 policy: Masks are required.