January was a busy month for Palaver. We began with a weekend retreat of back-to-back meetings, discussing everything from marketing strategies to programming decisions to the way we discuss things like “diversity.” In conjunction with Boston Medical Center, we participated in “The Lullaby Project,” helping new expectant mothers write and record original songs for their babies. Last but not least, we performed a concert called “Artists in Transit.” It took place in a hallway-turned-gallery at Boston University, in conversation with artwork by Molly Dee and John Branagan. The space felt small and even a little cozy once packed with forty people, and we were all engaged with the art in some way: blue and white figures stood in our midst as we played, and some audience members enjoyed the music from inside a train-like structure. The art investigated, in the artists’ words, “what the community in Boston is really like and how we interpret the city that’s become our home.”
The pieces we chose to play, likewise, engage powerfully with ideas of time, movement, and geography. Holst’s “St. Paul’s Suite” pits rollicking Scottish jigs against a klezmer-y intermezzo. Vaughn Williams takes us on a transformative journey with the English hymn “Dives and Lazarus” (better known as the folk tune “Star the County Down).” Bartok’s “Divertimento” flirts with baroque forms one minute and Hungarian folk gestures the next. And so on.
We had no way of knowing that “Artists in Transit” would come on the heels of an executive order banning travelers from five countries. As we played, I thought about those “in transit” affected by the ban, being detained at airports or turned away from their flights. I thought about Bartok, who wrote the “Divertimento” shortly before emigrating from his native Hungary at the onset of World War II. I was also conscious of using music to try to give the audience, as well as ourselves, a much-needed refuge from reality.
It can be tempting to think of classical music as timeless, placeless, at best “universal” and at worst dated and static. When it’s really good, music can transcend a lot of things, but this doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Bartok, who vocally opposed fascism and refused to have his pieces played in Nazi Germany, understood this. This music’s complex beauty reflects many journeys, many influences, many kinds of transit. So does Boston and so do we.