Review: With Protest and Fire, an Oratorio Mourns a Tragedy | Modern Society of USA

Review: With Protest and Fire, an Oratorio Mourns a Tragedy

Review: With Protest and Fire, an Oratorio Mourns a Tragedy

The composer Julia Wolfe’s new multimedia oratorio concerns the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. It was a prescient choice of subject. The fire — which took the lives of 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrant women — led to changes in workplace conditions and stirred debate over contentious issues of gender, labor and immigrants’ rights.

But how much progress has been made over the past century? That question hovered over the New York Philharmonic’s premiere of Ms. Wolfe’s ambitious, heartfelt, often compelling “Fire in my mouth” on Thursday, a month into a partial government shutdown driven by bitterness over immigration policy.

The big things are right in this tautly structured 60-minute piece in four parts: “Immigration,” “Factory,” “Protest” and “Fire.” In an affecting touch, the chorus is made up of 146 women and girls, members of the excellent chamber choir the Crossing (Donald Nally, director) and the impressive Young People’s Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Núñez, director).

Ms. Wolfe’s choice of choral texts, mostly drawn from oral histories and speeches, shows great sensitivity. In “Immigration” she sets the words of a survivor recalling her trip to America: “five of us girls” taking “a big beautiful boat” that “took about 10 days,” everyone looking “to God knows what kind of future.”

There is both heady optimism and a sense of dread in Ms. Wolfe’s music here, whole stretches of which render the words in thick, blocky chords, over an orchestra grounded by droning tones yet run through with fidgety inner details. Often a single word is turned into a battering ram: “10, 10, 10,” or “days, days, days.” Longer choral lines unfold in overlapping phrases, which blend words and choral textures into a haunting muddle.

“Factory” begins with percussion evoking the clattering sounds of sewing machines. Most of the workers were Eastern European Jews and southern Italians. So Ms. Wolfe inventively juxtaposes a plaintive Yiddish folk song with a lively Italian tarantella-like piece. The way these songs are embedded in Ms. Wolfe’s agitated, heaving orchestra, they seem like alternative coping mechanisms for the oppressed.

There are stretches in which the music of “Fire in my mouth” assumes its place in the multimedia whole a little too well. I liked it most when Ms. Wolfe went for something musically visceral or extreme, as in the climactic episode of “Protest.” The women’s choir sings relentless phrases espousing the determination of these immigrants to “talk like,” “look like” and “sing like” Americans.

Then the girls’ choir, entering the hall from the aisles, sang a stark passage from a speech by Clara Lemlich, an activist leading a strike. Here, the choral refrains and orchestra layers built into piercing harmonies, like clusters out of Ives or Varèse, yet driven by Ms. Wolfe’s Minimalism-influenced rhythms.

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