Almost two years have passed since I met Merike Beecher at a concert at Scandinavia House. I didn’t know her name until later, and I didn’t meet her son until the three of us happened to land in the same subway car. Her son, it transpired, was a composer: Lembit Beecher. When I got home, I looked up Beecher, watched his oratorio, And Then I Remember, online, and snapped up a copy of the DVD. I’ve been on the look-out ever since to attend a live performance of Beecher’s work, and this October, I finally got my chance.
The concert, held at the New York Estonian House, was part of “The Esto-Ugric Project,” a concert and commissioning project based on music inspired by Estonian and Hungarian folk songs. Among other things, I was looking forward to the chance to hear Beecher’s string quartet, These Memories May Be True, which had premiered in San Francisco and received an excellent review.
Beecher welcomed us to the evening with charm and wit. With arm outstretched, as if to hold a folk song in his gentle grip, he demonstrated by gesture as well as words the character of such a song. Beecher’s introduction set the tone for the night: this would be music on a human scale.
Without fanfare, Beecher opened the concert with Béla Bartók’s piano arrangements of a selection of Hungarian Peasant Songs. Mary Bonhag, whom I knew as the radiant soprano in Beecher’s And Then I Remember, then joined Beecher to sing two Estonian Narrative Folk Songs by Veljo Tormis. Merike Beecher was my seatmate for the concert, and she proved an entertaining guide. When we exchanged compliments about Bonhag’s singing, she was quick to note that Bonhag’s Estonian was good, too.
The first half of the concert closed with Beecher’s string quartet, These Memories May Be True. As in his oratorio, he drew inspiration from his grandmother, Taimi Lepasaar, who died shortly after he began work on the quartet. Beecher wrote in the program notes:
This piece is a little like the image of Estonia that I had while growing up: a few songs, some pictures and a lot of stories, all filtered through many layers of retelling, and all touched by a sense of nostalgia, a sense of something beautiful that has been lost in the wash of time.
In the string quartet, as in the oratorio, Beecher demonstrates his gift for evoking, through elegant musical understatement, the full range of complicated thoughts and feelings a human life can hold, with the Aizuri Quartet members Miho Saegusa (violin), Zoë Martin-Doike (violin), Ayane Kozasa (viola), and Karen Ouzounian (cello) offering a performance that was both technically excellent and emotionally rich.
The first movement incorporates an Estonian song Beecher obtained from an old field recording. The melody bends and spirals as the movement progresses. The second movement limns in music “The Legend of the Last Ship (and other collective memories).” Musical conversation among members of the quartet hesitates and resumes, the swapping of tales commingled with unease about what has been and what’s to come.
The music strides into the third movement, indomitable, yet an undercurrent of tenderness breaks through. The last movement is based on a 19th century Estonian folk song, Meil aiaäärne tänavas (Our Childhood Village Lane). Beecher quotes the song in decaying fragments, enticing us to the threshold of nostalgic longing. Plucked strings disturb our reverie, and the song dies away.
After intermission, Benjamin Grow joined Beecher in Three Wedding Dances for four-hand piano by György Ligeti, which, confounding my expectations, was plain old rousing fun. Bonhag returned to sing three songs by Zoltán Kodály. In addition to her accomplished singing, Bonhag is able, by subtle changes of expression, to signal shifts in mood. And so she did in Ne búsuljon sënki mënyecskéje, though Merike Beecher added to the pleasure by pointing gleefully to the English translation, “A young woman should be cheerful . . . Even though her husband is a pain.”
As part of the Project, Beecher had commissioned five non-Estonian composers to create miniatures based on folk songs transcribed by Beecher’s great-grandfather in 1908. Beecher was joined by Mary Bonhag, double bassist Evan Primo, and cellist and member of the Aizuri Quartet Karen Ouzounian to perform each of the microcommissions, but not before the audience was engaged to co-compose one, too. Bonhag led us all in singing the folk melody three times through, so as to get it in our ears. Beecher then asked us how each instrument should play and how Bonhag should sing. The instructions came flying thick and fast: the double bass was assigned to play in its highest register, the cello at an interval of a sixth below. The piano was assigned a pitched percussive role, and Bonhag a long melodic line over the whole. My favorite instruction came from a familiar voice in the back row: Lucy Dhegrae requested that the piece dissolve into chaos at the end.
The musicians improvised on their assignment with élan, and we, as listeners, became active participants in the creation of new work. Pretty clever of Beecher to come up with that, I thought, not to mention fun. The five microcommissions, by Ouzounian, Brad Balliett, Dan Sedgwick, Scott Wollschleger, and Evan Premo, couldn’t have been more different from one another. Each offered an imaginative reinvention of folk song material from which the piece had been composed.
The Aizuri Quartet returned to center stage for the final work of the evening, Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1. Once again, the Quartet’s performance was as passionate as it was focused, enveloping us all in Bartók’s extraordinary, inimitable world of sound. It’s remarkable to think that the quartet formed only a year ago. I expect to hear a lot more from these fine musicians.
In explaining the title of his string quartet, Beecher said he’d heard many tales of WWII from people who’d escaped Estonia on the last ship out: the trouble was, they weren’t always talking about the same ship. (As he said it, Merike Beecher leaned my way and said, “Yes, but ours was the last ship.” I didn’t require any independent confirmation to know her story was true.) Lembit Beecher wrote of those other “last ship” tales, “I soon realized that the important part of these stories, the emotion, was true, regardless of the nitty gritty of naval departure times.”
The concert took place more than two weeks ago. I took no notes, yet its impact lingers on. The concert’s emotional truth, like that for the “last ship” tales, doesn’t depend on factual detail, but rather resides in the community of music created among the composers, performers, and listeners who were there. I’m grateful I was able to take part. This was, truly, music on a human scale.
More about Lembit Beecher may be found here.
Lembit Beecher, These Memories May Be True
© Lembit Beecher. Reproduced by kind permission.
I. Old Folk Song
II. The Legend of the Last Ship (and other collective memories)
III. Estonian Grandmother Superhero
IV. Variations on a Somewhat Old Folk Song
Meil aiaäärne tänävas (folk song used in These Memories May Be True, 4th movement)
Ne búsuljon sënki mënyecskéje (The young wife )” by Kodály, sung by Anne Sofie von Otter (starts at 2:55)
Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 1, I. Lento
Credits: The photographs are from the sources linked: photograph of New York Estonian House, Lembit Beecher, Aizuri Quartet, and Mary Bonhag. Quotations from Beecher are from the concert program notes. For the rest, I have relied on frail recollection, yet I like to think my memories may be true.