At ‘Sounds of Lyons,’ the flood of 2013 is past but not forgotten
By Peter Alexander
MitTze Wu is modern-day musical Molly Brown.
Brown survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and came back stronger than ever. Wu and her Sounds of Lyons chamber music festival survived the flood of 2013 and have come back with a robust and eclectic series of concerts that are better than ever.
Like Brown, Wu seems to be unsinkable.
The 2014 festival will take place in various venues in Lyons Friday through Sunday, Sept. 12 through 14. This is a displacement from the usual timing of the festival in May and early June, but that slight delay is the only sign that the flood has directly affected the festival.
Indirectly, however, you could say that the flood runs through and under everything in this year’s Sounds of Lyons.
The major events of the festival maintain what has become Sounds of Lyons’ signature: three principal concerts, ranging from world music crossovers to serious classical chamber music. Surrounding the three main concert events are activities for children and families in Sandstone Park, culminating at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, in an event titled “Celebrating Lyons II.” (For full concert programs and tickets, click here.)
“This has been the same format since the first year,” Wu says. “It will be balanced and dynamic—that’s just the way my brain works.”
The Saturday night concert, at 8 p.m. in Rogers Hall (4th and High streets in Lyons), is the festival’s central event, both in the order of events and emotionally in that it is the concert most directly inspired by the flood. Titled “Life True,” the performance will feature movements from string quartets by Haydn and Beethoven interspersed among four short documentary films by Jem Moore, profiling four remarkable characters in Macau, China.
“The flood is very present with everybody here in Lyons,” Wu says. “It is definitely present in the psychic space. Since I do much of the programming in exploration of what is happening in me and around me, I think the flood entered my consciousness of wanting to find strength. And for that I always, always turn to the music of Beethoven, especially the late string quartets.”
Wu likens the four films to the movements of a classical symphony or string quartet. The first film is preceded by a string quartet movement by Haydn, and then each film is followed by a carefully selected movement from a Beethoven quartet.
All four films were made in Macau, a ”special administrative region” within mainland China, similar to Hong Kong, which is right across the bay. Macau is best known for gambling, which is one of its primary sources of income, and as an offshore tax haven.
“It’s a four movement form,” Wu explains. “It goes like film, music, film, music—each film and music pair is grouped to make one large movement.
“The first movement is a coffee plantation owner, the second movement is a singer-songwriter. The third movement is a very poignant one about an immigrant massage therapist who left a very poor village in the Philippines to go to work in Macau, which is kind of her salvation (as well as) a place of sin. And the last movement is about a Buddhist calligrapher/chef.”
The musical performances will be by the Sage Quartet, consisting of Wu and Margaret Gutierrez, violin; Chieh-Fan Yiu, viola; and Michael Graham, cello. They are more or less the resident quartet for Sounds of Lyons, except that the personnel varies from year to year. In fact, “Sage Quartet’ Is more of a concept and an approach to music making than a specific collection of players.
“It doesn’t matter to me who is in the Sage Quartet at Sounds of Lyons,” Wu says. “I keep myself anonymous. The quartet is a collective spirit, I would say. And the really beautiful thing is how we work together.”
It has traditionally been the opening concerts of Sounds of Lyons that have the most eclectic and genre-blending programs. This year’s opener, “Crazy About You,” will continue that pattern at 8 p.m. Friday in
Rogers Hall. As described on the festival’s Web page, it will be “a tapestry woven through classical, flamenco, Brazilian, Spanish, original, folk music, songs and dances.”
Performers will be the Sage Ensemble—a trio of violin, viola and cello from the Sage Quartet joining with the guitar-flute duo of Alfredo Muro and Emma Shubin, vocalist Shannon Johnson, and the Flamenco Underground duo of guitarist/singer Mark Herzog and dancer Natalia Pérez del Villar.
The wide-ranging program includes Brazilian choros—a melancholy style of dance music that often includes extensive improvisation similar to jazz—bossa nova, samba, tango, and Spanish folk dance, as well as more classical compositions by Isaac Abeniz, Heitor Villa Lobos and the 17th-century German composer Heinrich Ignaz von Biber.
But listing the titles hardly does the planned concert justice. “There’s room for each group to present their art form,” Wu says. “Then there will be numbers that we all work together, to bring flamenco, and classical and folk and all that together.’ Even the Biber—a rather strict passacaglia from Renaissance times—will “sort of turn flamenco at the end,” she says.
The final concert, Sunday at 8 in Lyons Community Church at 350 Main Street, will feature a single piece: The Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach. But characteristically, these will be the Goldberg Variations as you’ve never heard them before.
To begin with, the Variations have been transcribed from Bach’s keyboard original into an arrangement for the same string trio that plays on opening night. But the transcribed music is only part of the performance. Wu love to tell stories, and the Goldberg Variations, written to be played late nights for an insomniac German count, gave her all the inspiration she needs. In between the variations, the musicians will engage in a conversation with each other and the audience about insomnia.
“We’ll be kind of bouncing back and forth some quotes and some essays, some thoughts, about insomnia,” Wu says. “Some could be spontaneous and some could be quotes. We’re leaving some space for spontaneity amongst the performers on stage, so I can’t quite tell what’s going to happen.”
Returning to the subject of the flood, Wu is clear that it was never a thought that she would not hold the festival this year. Making and sharing music is too much a part of Lyons to be left behind.
“Lyons is culturally a very spiritual kind of place,” she says. “In one way we are doing absolutely what’s needed to flood recovery—fixing the roads, and raising funds, and doing everything that’s necessary. But you also see that huge need and desire to raise ourselves above that feeling of devastation, to be uplifted and to uplift others.”
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Friday–Sunday, Sept. 12–14
Complete program and tickets here.