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A Night of Living Music History: A Trump, A Queer, and an Immigrant

Artist's rendition of Romeo & Juliet

On January 30th, 2017, I attended the Oregon Symphony’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, which was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. That Monday evening at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall followed a weekend of turmoil, coinciding with the President's (despicable) travel ban. Uncertainty, isolation, and a thick fear of what’s next, has persisted since the election. These emotions are almost palpable everywhere you turn, and because of this, I had decided that night to escape alone to the symphony for a little self-date.

I was seated next to a group of slightly-older, white, females that were heatedly exchanging their displeasure with the immigration chaos. Their disbelief over the action, their fear of what’s next, and where it might lead. They grew quiet slightly after the musicians took the stage.

Carlos Kalmar

Conductor Carlos Kalmar – the tenth Oregon Symphony Music Director since 1918 –walked out with an air of caution. His remarks had a purpose beyond establishing what the night had in store. A phantom of urgency – as if he was charged by the present, while preparing to channel the past. His commentary reflected the feelings and reasons that brought me to the audience, yet illustrated the emotions in a new clarifying light.

Kalmar’s full speech, provided to the Oregonian, has been reprinted here:

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening,

I have been thinking a lot about this interesting profession that I am in. I'm not referring to my profession as a conductor, but the profession that we all here on stage share - that of musicians. Musicians express themselves through an art form that does not need any words. What we do is understood by literally everybody on this planet.

I have thought lately that that is actually something wonderful, because we all come here and we play for you. There are these fantastic moments during which we all share the same sentiment, the same emotion. We can be happy together. We can cry together. Whatever it is, we all agree.

And I have been thinking about this unifying power that music has. Where words fail to bring people together, music can. (bold added for emphasis)

You know, this is a very personal concert for me. Aspects of the life of two of tonight's composers-Tchaikovsky, whose homosexuality made him an outcast, and Prokofiev, who suffered political oppression-are a reflection of the things that I have seen in my own life. The Jewish heritage of my parents made them flee their central European home for South America where my brother and I were born. Many years later I immigrated to the United States of America.

It is my hope that tonight you will all join me in reflecting on the beauty that musicians around the world bring to all our lives regardless of their background.

I was so moved by his words, so grateful to him for sharing his immigration story, and I was also not the only one – he received a standing ovation before the show even started. I went that evening for a momentary escape from the problems surrounding this new American regime, but found it unavoidable. And yet, I am thankful. Kalmar’s words and the music he conducted had essentially brought the crowd together. It left me feeling aware and hopeful at the same time. You could hear it as the entire theater applauded him and the talented musicians.

Photo courtesy of Phillip Trey

The further importance of Kalmar’s speech, is that it emphasizes something about minorities – and about resistance in a white-controlled America. That immigrants are everywhere, that racial minorities are everywhere (or are not minorities in other places), that queer people too are everywhere. They are in your families, your histories, your art, and your music. They have not gone anywhere – regardless if vile human beings are in political power – nor have they appeared out of nowhere. And no matter bigotry, walls, or hatred, they will persist. Through art, through words, through music, through simply living, we must all work to strive together.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The program itself started with a piece by Sean Shepherd, titled Magiya, and was composed in 2013. Followed by Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No.2 in G Minor, and Igor Stravisnky’s Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss, and finally culminated in Tchaikovsky’s work.

Going into that night, I realized that I didn’t actually know what the music would sound like. It didn’t, for me, have the recognition of his Swan Lake or The Nutcracker. The aural memory wasn’t there for me, but throughout the piece I was taken back to different moments in time. All the while realizing, that overture was all too familiar. I have since learned that:

The Overture's love theme has been used in many television series and movies such as Columbo, Kim Possible, The Jazz Singer (1927), Wayne's World, Animaniacs, Freakazoid, Pinky and the Brain, Road Rovers, Taz-Mania, Tiny Toons, Scrubs, Seeing Double, The Ren and Stimpy Show, South Park, Clueless, A Christmas Story, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moonraker, SpongeBob SquarePants, Pushing Daisies, Sesame Street, El Chavo, The Three Musketeers, among others.

Most of which, I have to admit, I’ve seen. This particular piece of Tchaikovsky’s was unknowingly embedded in my childhood and adult life.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

It’s also quite easy to forget the fact that Tchaikovsky, born in 1840, was gay. It’s not something often mentioned, and, in fact, a recent Russian made biopic purposefully omitted this. Yet even in the symphony’s program, the following story was shared:

In 1869, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then a music professor at the Moscow Conservatory, met and fell in love with a student, Eduard Zak. The two maintained a passionate affair for the next four years, until Zak committed suicide at the age of 19. Tchaikovsky’s love for Zak never wavered; fourteen years after his death, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, “The sound of his voice, the way he moved, but above all the way he used to look at me … The death of this boy, the fact that he no longer exists, is beyond my understanding. I believe I have never loved anyone as much as he … his memory is sacred to me."

His love for Zak, was a part of who he was, and how he saw the world around him. It was that love that even drew him to the story of Romeo & Juliet, “particularly its heartbreaking conclusion.”

The power of the musicians, a stage full of racially-diverse performers caused me to think on how queer and immigrant people’s music and art carries through time – how their stories matter. I wondered who else had immigrated, like Kalmar, in order to facilitate that night's beautiful music. Who else might have been told not to love or had their lives threatened. Perhaps, as well, Shakespeare's story can be a fitting comparison for the current political climate. Of one side versus the other, and that division only leading to heartbreak, misery, maybe even death. I went to the symphony seeking some sort of solace, and I guess I found it. I just didn’t think it would be through the power of community, a story from Shakespeare set to music, and a lesson in history.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

Where my words might have failed, let the music work its magic. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Overture Fantasy below:

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