Monday, Feb. 25, marked the last World Music Series event of Winter Term and it definitely did not disappoint. The stream of freshmen that were required to be at the concert on the first day of ninth week entered the Chapel warily, having left their work behind, but left happier than before and with a unique experience. Along with the freshmen, many conservatory students from all years and faculty awaited the Fifth House Ensemble performance excitedly, knowing what was in store.
Fifth House Ensemble is a Chicago-based chamber music group that reaches beyond the traditionally perceived limits of classical music. They do much more than perform, playing a large role in the Chicago community through education and civic programs, as well as engaging with theater groups, schools, corporate innovators and even video game designers through their wide reach. On Monday night, the group presented a brand new collaboration with the Tuvan throat-singing ensemble, Alash. The concert delved into storytelling through music, meditation and deep listening and used mediums such as audience participation, documentary film, photographs and newly commissioned pieces as well as traditional Tuvan songs to engage their audience.
Throat singers have made it to the Lawrence World Music Series concerts before and I remember a few during my own freshman year. Nothing compared, though, to the clarity and resonance of Alash, a group of three Tuvan men the Fifth House Ensemble had spent the summer travelling and playing with in their home country. Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik were dressed in traditional Tuvan garb and took turns throat singing and playing different instruments such as the igil, an ancestor of the cello, as well as the doshpuluur, a guitar-like instrument with three strings, and the kengirge, a large drum, to name a few. The Fifth House Ensemble surrounded them, blending their Western instruments beautifully with the Tuvan sound.
One of my favorites was a piece that told the story of two sisters embodied in two parallel rivers running through the Tuvan countryside. According to Tuvan myth, all natural things have spirits that must be honored, and the sisters in this song were represented by the music of these rivers. The concert was full of new music works as well, featuring two main commissioned pieces. The first, called “The Amphibian,” told another folk tale through narration and instrumental personifications and accents. The story of a frog at the bottom of a well is common among many cultures worldwide and the piece aptly wove together music, nature and animals to depict it in a Tuvan way. The second commissioned piece, “Knuckle Duels,” was written by a video game music composer who combined a traditional Tuvan game using sheep’s knuckles and the multicultural group of instrumentalists to bring it to life. Two students were called up from the audience to participate, and the ensemble was divided into two teams accordingly, playing along with the game itself.
While these ensembles hailed from incredibly different backgrounds both musically and culturally, when combined, the two sounded seamless. Obviously, their talent and dedication to the project paid off.