Cello Reveries at Reid Hall

Well, sometimes a little Facebook procrastination actually does pay off. Last night, while putting off some Schubert reading, I scrolled aimlessly through my News Feed, looking for…something. Suddenly, the words “Paris,” “Reid Hall,” “Concert,” jumped out at me. Professor Boynton — the music department’s strong advocate — had written a post about a performance at Reid Hall.


A Midsummer Night’s Concert would be a good way to describe tonight’s atmosphere. Sun rays beamed through the windows, clouds twirled through the blue expanse, and students milled about — chatting, laughing. In short, not a care in the world.


Appropriate for this aura was the first piece on the program: Bach’s famous Suite No. 1 in G Major.


It is à propos that Bach literally means “stream” in German. Whenever I hear the cello suites, I automatically picture myself plopped down next to a brook. The pebbles whirl along as the water zigs and zags through a Bavarian wood. Peaceful, in a word.


From Bach we made a rather large jump of about 350 years to Peteris Vasks’ Pianissimo, a movement from his Book for Solo Cello. I really enjoyed listening to this piece. It featured a drone, over which the cellist spun out hauntingly modal tunes. Before I go any further, I must commend Hee-Young Lim for her phenomenal work tonight. Lim, the principal cellist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic — no small feat by any means — performed with resolved nuance. Her Bach was warm and her Vask suitably icy.


Lim’s abilities extended beyond the instrumental realm. For Pianissimo, she had to sing while playing the cello. In essence, she created three-lined music all by herself. Harmonizing vocally while playing an instrument is challenging, yet Lim made it sound très facile.


To conclude, Reid Hall featured one of Columbia’s own: Peter Susser.


Susser’s work, Cello Suite, paid clear homage to the first piece on the program. While Bach exhibited continual smoothness, Susser — a cellist himself — integrated intriguing spikes and spices into a recognizably Bachian texture. In The Curb, the fifth dance from his suite, Lim stumbled along a Parisian sidewalk, like a little kid with a lollipop in one hand and a Nintendo DS in the other.


Tonight’s offering presented completely different musical styles. Yet, from one work to the other, I recognized continuities in compositional approaches. Because of these connections, the program achieved unity. This is exactly what well-thought-out, effective programming looks like. Thank you for a cohesive night of cello reveries.




Music Uniting for Peace

Columbia University’s Musicians Stand Against the Executive Order



Tonight, in the ornate Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, the Columbia University Department of Music and Music Performance Program hosted a special event of music making. The program entitled, “Musicians Against the Executive Order,” was a fundraising concert for the American Civil Liberties Union to “support defenders of those barred entry to the United States by the Executive Order.”

The event was personal for the department of music. Ashkan Behzadi, a composition DMA student who I had the pleasure of having as a TA in my first-year Music Theory class, was almost affected by the new executive order. Because he is an Iranian-Canadian dual citizen, the department had doubts over whether he could return to Columbia. Luckily, this weekend, while in preparation for this concert featuring his music, the department learned that Behzadi can in fact return on account of his dual citizenship.

The concert was striking for its musical diversity. Spirituals, Schumann, and electronic music synchronized with lighting effects were performed by Columbia students and faculty. With their programming, the music department showed that if music from diverse cultural sources can exist in harmony in one concert, then so can the people who make it.


The performance featured many heartfelt immigration stories. Emily Shyr and Cindy Liu, two Columbia College musicians who performed the first of Schumann’s Drei Romanzen for Oboe and Piano, shared their identities as daughters of immigrants. Both described the sacrifices their parents made and humbly thanked them for their support. Joseph Morag, a junior violinist in Columbia College, also expressed gratitude towards his parents, observing that he wouldn’t be on the Italian Academy stage without them. And Mario Diaz de Leon, a Core Lecturer in Music Humanities who received his DMA in Composition from Columbia in 2013, verbally dedicated the electronic improvisation he performed to his father, who emigrated from Mexico City forty years ago. By presenting their identities, these musicians infused their performances with gravitas and emotional weight.

Tonight, union despite diversity emerged through music making. The final performance by the Columbia Arab Music Ensemble epitomized this phenomenon. The group, directed by Taoufik Ben-Amor, consisted of musicians of different ages and ethnicities. Some played instruments like the oud and the tar while others performed on flutes, violins, cellos, and accordions. The synthesis of both traditional Arabic and Western instruments defied preconceived notions of who can play together. Through collaboration, the ensemble asserted a multicultural, international musical perspective.

Before their second song, Ben-Amor invited the audience to sing along with the refrain, “As-salamu alaykum,” which he explained as an expression of peace. Although the audience was timid at first – public singing at a concert?! – Ben-Amor’s happy demeanor and encouraging “Come-ons!” raised up a chorus of affirmative sound. In that moment, unity emerged through collective singing. Sounding together removed us from temporality, making us forget the painful order against acceptance we were all responding to.

The song ended with sustained, reflective applause. Ben-Amor’s young daughter (born in NYC to a Tunisian father and German mother, who Ben-Amor described as belonging here) rushed to her father and embraced him. Turning to us, she smiled. Hope danced throughout the hall, from one lightened face to another. Tonight, music united for peace.