NORTH BETHESDA, United States (AFP) — When Israeli-American pianist Yael Weiss asked Sidney Marquez Boquiren to write a piece inspired by a Beethoven piano sonata, the composer highlighted the “unheard” victims of extrajudicial killings in his native Philippines.
The work, part of an ambitious project commissioning 32 composers from countries plagued by conflict to create pieces responding to each of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas, premiered on Thursday at the Mansion at Strathmore outside Washington.
“The title ‘Unheard Voices’ refers to how the voices of the innocent are not heard, even the voices of those who are expressing anger, expressing desire for change or just going against what’s happening… and are fearful for their own lives,” Boquiren told AFP.
For many in the Philippines, those voices are the victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, in which police say they have killed nearly 5,000 alleged users and pushers — although rights groups say the toll is at least triple that.
“What scares me is that Filipinos are willing to forgive, or accept, the fact that there will be collateral damage,” Boquiren added.
During the performance, Weiss listens to a recording of the tragic second movement of the seventh sonata on headphones — unheard by the audience, which only hears her play Boquiren’s composition that carves away or echoes notes from the 1798 piece.
Like the other solo piano works in the “32 Bright Clouds” project, there is also a nod to a passage in the final movement of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a mass composed at the height of his career.
The piece closes with “sforzando” attacks on clusters of notes at a point when the Beethoven sonata would be at its quietest. That’s an epic challenge for the performer.
‘Unique, fresh, delicious’
Weiss, 46, also premiered works by composers from Ghana, Iran, Jordan and Syria, and played another previously performed from Indonesia.
Malek Jandali’s work is dedicated to the “noble quest for peace” of Syrian children, up to 30,000 of whom have died in the war in Syria according to opposition groups, with government forces identified by far as the biggest killer.
Juxtaposing the Missa Solemnis motif with a rhythm from the first movement of “The Hunt” sonata, Jandali then integrates Arab maqamat, or melodic modes, with Western harmonies in what he calls his “unique, fresh, delicious vocabulary.”
“When I meet Syrian children in refugee camps, you can see in their eyes beauty and truth and hope and peace, but at the same time you can also see anger and sadness and injustice and pain,” Jandali said by telephone.
“So it’s a mix of emotions and that’s what the piece tries to capture.”
George Mensah Essilfie of Ghana composed around Beethoven’s Sonata Number 16 in G major, and donated his commissioning fee to a psychiatric hospital in Accra to help end mistreatment of those with mental disorders.
He quoted some of the first movement’s chords, played in stutter-like fashion that gives the sense that the pianist’s hands are unable to play together.
Weiss hopes to eventually host a marathon, daylong performance of the new works paired with Beethoven’s, much like a collaborative concert featuring all 32 sonatas in which she once participated as a student of Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute conservatory.
“There are stories that need to be heard, and I felt that they need to be heard from a point of view of oneness, of connectivity,” said Weiss, who calls for “celebrating differences.”
On June 11, she has a concert planned in Havana.
Her project has even taken her to remote Bhutan, where oral tradition predominates. There, Kheng Sonam Dorji transposed material for the dramyin, a Himalayan lute, to the piano.
Venezuela’s Adina Izarra, whose “Arietta for 150 Kids” Weiss will premiere in Ann Arbor, Michigan on March 15, dedicated her work to the youths killed by President Nicolas Maduro’s security forces in 2017.
It’s a conversation with Beethoven’s extraordinarily forward-looking, final sonata.
Call for peace
The complete cycle of new compositions is set to be completed in 2020, as part of celebrations around the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
A cornerstone of the piano repertoire, the Beethoven sonatas themselves demonstrate the gradual transformation that saw the German composer blow apart musical conventions, resolutely push music into the Romantic period and even foresee ragtime.
Above the mass motif Weiss chose, Beethoven wrote “A call for inward and outward peace” in the score.
It’s a call that resonates in more ways than one.
Just hours before Weiss premiered the new compositions, Indonesian authorities released Jakarta’s former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, to whose “bravery” a sixth piece by Ananda Sukarlan was dedicated.