A riddle: What’s non-political, yet more powerful than politics? For the Chicago-based Civitas Ensemble, composed of violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, cellist Kenneth Olson, and pianist Winston Choi, the answer is undoubtedly music. At a time when things seem hyperpoliticized, the group is transcending geopolitical, cultural, and musical boundaries through its instruments. On Sunday May 21, Civitas will give a collaborative performance with the Gipsy Way Ensemble, a quartet based in Czechia, headed by violinist Pavel Šporcl. The concert is intended as both a means for cultural exchange and an opportunity to destigmatize Romani culture.
Civitas Ensemble frequently collaborates with other groups, according to Yu. “We program classical pieces by classical composers, but often we have a different way of looking at the pieces,” she said. “Sometimes a piece is composed for ensembles like ours to work with dancers, or there are pieces that are more theatrical, and we have actors acting with the piece so that it is a collaborative work across art forms.”
The program with the Gipsy Way Ensemble is yet another way for Civitas to continue its commitment to collaboration, thanks to a generous grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Part of a larger exchange project with Gipsy Way, the May 21 event in Chicago follows a concert the two groups gave in January in Prague. While there, they premiered two pieces by Czech composer Lukáš Sommer in addition to a number of Romani-inspired Western classical pieces adapted for both groups.
“We are combining those two art forms [Romani and classical music] and making something new,” Yu explained.
Integral to this project’s mission is underscoring the power of music to successfully catalyze the exchange. Yu, who was born in China, understands music’s adeptness at cutting through cultural walls. “Three out of the four musicians who are coming [to Chicago on May 21] do not speak English, but when we were in Prague, we had no problem communicating through music [and] enjoying ourselves through music,” she said. “Culturally, [China] could not be further away from how they grew up, but there was no difficulty in terms of communicating and experiencing the same emotional journey as we made music together,” she continued.
The hope is for audience members to experience a similar phenomenon: “You listen to the music and it is high-energy, it just makes you want to jump up and dance or cheer,” Yu explained, and the fact that this music can elicit such emotion and celebration sans the preconditioned stigmata associated with the word “Gypsy” is crucial.
The repertoire for the upcoming concert keeps with the focus on celebrating differences. A combination of Western names such as Brahms and Sarasate, and those outside the Western canon such as Sommer and Gipsy Way violinist Šporcl, the program serves as a means for both listeners and performers to try something new.
“The idea is to really have a wide spectrum, and to experience different styles of the so-called Gypsy music. We also want to showcase that Gypsy music has been in the classical repertoire for centuries,” she said. For instance, Brahms’s beloved Hungarian Dances are reminiscent of Romani music, while also being mainstays of the Western classical realm. One of them has been adapted for eight musicians for this concert.
Yu explained that the Gipsy Way musicians had never played one of the selected Brahms pieces before. At the same time, she herself, prior to playing them for this project, had only listened to recordings of the pieces that are hallmarks of Gipsy Way’s repertoire.
An additional and unique aspect to this collaboration is that a film crew has been following the groups since January. A documentary will be released after the culminating Chicago concert. The groups also have a record deal for the performance, and will be releasing CDs along with the film.
“[These concerts are] a celebration of this incredible ethnic group,” Yu said. “Over many, many centuries, these people were persecuted heavily throughout Europe, and even nowadays there is a certain discrimination towards Gypsy people…. We want people to just experience this through music and nothing else.”