Grappling with war through music


By Timothy Lavin

For nearly 20 years, Downtown Music Productions has been delivering offbeat, often politically motivated musical programming to audiences in Lower Manhattan. Starting next week, the group will continue the trend with a presentation of “War and Pieces,” an ambitious five-part series that begins November 9, in honor of Armistice Day, at St. Mark’s church on 10th Street and 2nd Avenue.

“The war has been in the air for a long time now, way before I got this repertory together,” said Mimi Stern Wolfe, the organization’s founder and ensemble director, who developed the program. “I’ve been following it like a maniac. I think this is a way to express my thoughts about war and about peace and what it means to people in some kind of meaningful way. Our country’s really in a mess now, I think, and music speaks to a lot of people.”

The first segment of “War and Pieces,” called “Armistice Day Remembered,” will feature nine performances by the Downtown Chamber and Opera Players, including an arrangement of Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” by Nicholas Scarim, and a musical rendition of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Peace,” by Joyce Hope Suskind. It will conclude with the Irish folk tune “Johnny I Hardly Knew You.”

“It’s a chance to do the army songs and a lot of it is like, ‘Hip-hip-hooray, let’s go to war,’” said Wolfe. “It’s a lot of patriotic songs but sort of gone askew.”

Like many of the programs she has conducted over the years, it will include a variety of theatrical elements uncommon to traditional chamber ensembles. During the performance of a piece called “War Widow,” for instance, the performers will be marching martially around the stage.

“I’ll be wearing an authentic World War I army helmet salvaged from my childhood for that one,” said Andrew Bolotowsky, the ensemble’s flutist. “Mimi never sort of just does a performance. She gets you involved in her viewpoint, in her ideas about social reform. But it all works musically. It’s not for special interest groups. The performance is not so totally bound by the message that the music suffers.”

While the on-going military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan provided an impetus for developing “War and Pieces,” Wolfe also hoped to address broader social themes that the actions have made salient. For International Women’s Day in March, for instance, she will be presenting “Women and War,” which highlights music from female composers and includes a performance by the all-female Colorado String Quartet.

In late January, the ensemble will perform a program called “I Have a Dream,” which includes a gospel chorus and some music from a composer lost in the Holocaust. In May, for Mother’s Day, they will present “Children and Peace,” which features a number called “Tubby the Tuba meets Babar the Elephant” and a “folk sing-a-long for peace.”

“It gives us a chance to do something for the little ones without scaring them with the horrors of the world,” Wolfe said.

“War and Pieces” will culminate on June 19th and 20th with performances of Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale,” directed by James Nicola and choreographed by Valentina Kozlova, and featuring the violinist Marshall Coid.

“I’ve always looked for a way to synthesize my political proclivities with my music,” Wolfe said. “I wanted to find a way to play music and yet to do it in a way that could educate people.”

Some of her previous endeavors include “Composers of the Holocaust,” which focused on the work of Jewish composers who lost their lives in concentration camps, and “The Benson Series,” a number of benefit concerts for AIDS relief that featured music from composers who died of the disease.

“I’ve looked around for ways to produce music for people or for causes that would make a difference,” she said. “It’s sometimes very hard to feel, as an artist, that you make a difference. But we try.”