- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Guitarist Isaac Bustos brings an irreducible point of view to “I/We,” a multifaceted concert on the theme of refugees coming July 28-29 to the Blanton Museum of Art.
“I know what it’s like to have your entire life in limbo,” Bustos says. “As a child, being treated differently because of my refugee status was difficult. Sometimes I fear that we lose sight of the human aspect of being a refugee, but a project like (this) gives a voice to people with diverse and often traumatic life experiences, and shines a light on what they went through.”
Multimedia producer Yuliya Lanina, part of an international group of artists assembled for this project by Austin Classical Guitar, comes to it with a potent personal connection as well.
“I came as a refugee from Russia in 1990, fleeing anti-Semitism and constant threats,” she says. “The U.S. welcomed me and my family, and we were given the freedom to build our lives without being punished for who we are. I want others who are now in a similar situation, or worse, to have that same opportunity.”
During the past season, the stories of refugees have repeatedly gripped Austin artists.
That’s one reason Matthew Hinsley, leader of Austin Classical Guitar, brought together a team that includes resident composer Joseph V. Williams II to connect with hours of interviews conducted by his group’s education director, Travis Marcum, with refugees in Central Texas.
The resulting concert, “I/We,” is one in a series of this group’s shows that combine audio and visual displays.
“I think of ‘I/We’ as an invitation for our community to look for themselves in the faces of others,” Hinsley says. “We as a nation seem to have entered into a particularly polarized time, a time when technology has connected us more than ever before, while isolating us from one another — parked behind our individual screens — at the same time.”
Like much of the country, Hinsley also has been dismayed by a negative tone in the national conversation.
“We are capable of drawing lines between one another for almost any reason: gender, geography, alma mater, sports team, socioeconomics, ideology,” he says. “In ‘I/We,’ we chose to focus on refugees specifically because the humanitarian toll is so unimaginably great on so many across the globe right now. It seems to me that if ever humanity might benefit from seeing ourselves in the faces of others, it is with regard to refugees.”
The lobby outside the Blanton Auditorium — located inside the multistory building on western side of the University of Texas museum complex — will greet guests with the art of Russian-born Lanina. The musical artists for the program hail from Nicaragua, France, Venezuela and Sweden as well as the United States.
The first half of the program will introduce each of the performers and their instruments. The musical selections will be interspersed with poetry readings, as described here by Hinsley:
• “I Sing of Your Mercies,” a Norwegian folk tune sung by Craig Hella Johnson that includes the lyrics: “How my wearied soul longed for calm and for rest! How it thirsted for mercy. Lost and seeking shelter from life’s cruel storms.”
• “Abyss Of Birds” for solo clarinet performed by Håkan Rosengren and composed by Olivier Messiaen, who wrote in the score, “The abyss is time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant songs.”
• “El Sueño de la Razón Produce Monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters)” for solo guitar performed by Bustos and composed by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in response to a Francisco Goya etching of the same name. Castelnuovo-Tedesco fled anti-Semitism in fascist Italy in the late 1930s and settled ultimately in Hollywood, where he became one of the most prominent film composers of the mid-20th century.
• “How Many Would It Take” for violin and electronics performed by New York City-based violinist Jennifer Choi and composed by Kinan Azmeh. His program notes say the piece was “composed during my long visit to my home country Syria during March of 2012, back then marking the first anniversary of the Syrian revolution and the tragic events that followed. The piece asked the question ‘How Many Would It Take?’ in 2012 when the death toll have reached over 10,000 people, most of which were innocent civilians. This very question continues to resonate today after this number had reached 200,000. To all of those who dared to dream, I dedicate this piece.”
• “Milonga” for solo guitar performed by Alejandro Montiel and composed by Atahualpa Yupanqui of Argentina, who was a descendent of indigenous peoples of South America, extensively studied indigenous cultures, and whose adopted stage name is a reference to two Incan kings.
• “El Cant dels Ocells (The Song of the Birds)” for solo cello performed by Louis-Marie Fardet and arranged by Pablo Casals, who was exiled from Spain following the Spanish Civil War and was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1963.
The second half of the program will consist of the world premiere of “I/We” by Williams for two guitars, violin, cello and clarinet.
“Throughout the piece the audience will hear recorded statements from the interviews that Travis Marcum conducted with refugee families and individuals,” Hinsley says. “Williams’ choice of this instrumentation is a nod to Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time,’ written for piano, clarinet, violin and cello while Messiaen was a prisoner of war during World War II.”
The statements from refugees complement the music.
“The texts provide a glimpse into their bravery, struggle and hope for a better future,” Williams says. “The music creates an opportunity for contemplation and a shared medium in which the audience, performers and new members of our community can come together as one. I was deeply moved by the stories of these strong and generous people, and I hope this concert may serve as inspiration and a call for compassion and understanding.”