by Lisa Traiger
The players enter and stand holding their instruments - flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, saxophones, trumpets and trombones. In unison they speak: "I want to remind everyone that seder means order. ... The seder is a conversation about freedom and slavery, but our seders also measure our lives. Who will join the table next year? Who will be missing? Will we leave an empty place? Will we go on as we did before? The question echoes through the years: Why is this night different from all others?"
And then the French horn plays, plaintive, evocative, stirring.
Thus begins Order of an Empty Place, a musical contemplation of the Passover Haggadah composed by violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain for the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra. The work, specifically scored for the 33-piece wind ensemble, solo violin and rabbi, makes its world premiere tonight at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University in College Park. Saturday the work will premiere in New York at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. New York Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan and co-author of A Night of Questions, the Haggadah on which many musical and spoken passages of the work are based, will read and chant with the ensemble as an integral part of the work.
While Roumain says he experienced his first Passover seder as an adult, having grown up attending Latin mass with his staunch Catholic Haitian-American family in South Florida, after the birth of his son, Zachary Daniel, almost three years ago, he felt compelled to explore the ritual dinner in the context of his new obligations as a parent. Because Roumain's ex-wife is Jewish, he acknowledges he has a responsibility for raising his son with full knowledge of his Jewish background even as he is a child of, Roumain has written, "black, white, Catholic, Jewish, Haitian and American parents."
The acclaimed violinist, once as recognizable for his flowing waist-length dreadlocks - now shorn - as his prodigious technique, is known as a boundary-crossing musical artist who has forged ties well beyond the classical world. DBR, the moniker Roumain uses, holds a doctorate in music composition from University of Michigan and is as comfortable in the worlds of hip hop, jazz and pop as he is with the classical symphonies in front of which he frequently solos. His compositions reflect his life and times and include works for MacArthur-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, the Atlanta Ballet, the Orchestra of St. Lukes and ESPN, the sports network. He dueted with Lady Gaga on American Idol and composed "Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents" after watching then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama dance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Using the Haggadah as source material took Roumain into new terrain. It is his first religious piece, and though at some point he said he plans to compose a Catholic mass, drawing on the liturgy he knows so well from childhood, he was inspired to compose Empty Place for his son. At the JCC in Manhattan, he found Rabbi Levitt a willing partner and teacher. Roumain said they spent many hours - often over dinner - in study and conversation about the stories and meanings of the many parts of the Haggadah.
"There were a lot of emotions going through my mind as a new parent," Roumain said about his motivation for Empty Place. "I feel deeply responsible for Zachary's total education, and I felt ill-equipped to really speak to his white, Jewish side. I was actually desperate and intrigued and ... that's what gave me the notion to actively enhance his and my Judaic education."
The 35-minute musical work, which Roumain describes as theatrical and participatory with its use of both Hebrew and English text from the Haggadah, including spoken response from the audience, features remnants of the familiar. "Dayenu" the composer acknowledged was a given, yet much of the work is original. "I take these base melodies and in a very Bartokian way, a contemporary fashion, start to re-imagine them, break them apart, remix them," he said, adding that the music frequently evokes conversation, the chaos he heard Levitt describe from her childhood recollections of frantic seder preparations when everyone is doing something different, the children are running around, and the doorbell rings. Thus, he added, "There are some big ideas in the work about conversation, about history, about legacy, and the way I did that is very complex, very contrapuntal at times with many things going on. For instance, you hear 10 different instruments playing 10 different things, but they're all tied together."
Roumain credits his childhood music teacher, Mr. Miller, in Margate, Fla., for instilling in him both a love of the discipline and freedom he found in classical music, and, surprisingly, a deep respect for Judaism. "I remember matzah ball soup and macaroons that his wife made. I loved that," Roumain said. "And the matzah bread I remember. Even the sukkah. And whenever we had a holiday in school, in my young mind's eye, [Mr. Miller] was doing something similar but different. It was never Christmas or Easter, not with him and I couldn't quite figure it out actually until I was much older." And yet, Roumain, as a child of Haitian immigrants, also felt like a cultural outsider; he has said on occasion that his identity is not African American, but Haitian, planted deep in the soil of his parents' homeland.
Most interestingly, though, was his teacher's love of "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem. At each school concert, Roumain recalled, Mr. Miller selected only the best student to play "Hatikvah." Soon it became a work the budding violinist knew and loved, for it pleased his teacher so dearly. The ironic fact that at every December holiday concert, "Hatikvah" was played took Roumain decades to understand.
"Mr. Miller lived to see his legacy in my composition and accolades and so forth," Roumain said, "but my only regret - and I don't really believe in that - is that Zachary, my 2 ½ year old boy, half-white, half-black, half-Jewish, half-Catholic, half-African American - all of these things in his DNA - is that he didn't live to see Zachary there holding on with dear life to his violin."
Order of an Empty Place, with Debussy's Prelude on the Afternoon of a Faun and two movement from Mahler's Second Symphony, will be onstage March 29 at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park. Tickets, at $40, are available by calling 301-405-2787 or at www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.