Duke faculty, including the Ciompi Quartet, soprano Susan Dunn, violinist Hsiao-Mei Ku, with guest violinist Gabriel Richard, first violinist in l’Orchestre de Paris, were featured in a Baldwin Auditorium concert entitled “Songs of Journey.” A faculty/student chamber orchestra was conducted by Rodney Wynkoop and Stephen Jaffe.

The opening selection was Bright Sheng‘s 1990 composition for solo violin, The Stream Flows performed by Ku. The two movements of this piece are labeled only by tempo markings: 1. 1/4 = 54 and 2. 1/4 = 104-108. The first movement, based on a well-known Chinese folk song, was mystical and lyrical. It employs a number of performance techniques to evoke the sound of a female folk singer yearning for her distant love. The second movement is more playful, drawing to mind a country dance and the moods that accompany it. Ku’s performance was a display of artistic and technical mastery.

The Ciompi Quartet performed the first movement, “Fiddlers” (Scherzo), of Penka Kouneva‘s String Quartet No. 3 (1995). The composer describes it in the program notes as “playful, graceful, and exuberant. In it, music is conceived of as a game, or as a sort of jam-session where musicians trade solos and accompanimental patterns.” Ciompi played with their characteristic verve and finesse.

The first part of the concert was wrapped-up with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in the arrangement for chamber orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg. The soloist was Susan Dunn and the song cycle was conducted by Wynkoop. The lyrics for these four heart-rending songs were written by Mahler himself, strongly influenced by Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

The first song, “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When My Sweetheart is Married”), grieves over the loss of a sweetheart to another. The soprano soars over Mahler’s bittersweet music. The second movement, “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (“I Went This Morning over the Field”), contains happier thoughts and music, celebrating the beauty of nature, but it ends with a reminder of the singer’s unhappiness. The third song, “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” (“I Have a Gleaming Knife”), compares losing a love to a sharp knife in the breast cutting into every joy and delight.

The closing song, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”) brings resolution over gentle music with chorale-like harmonies. Leaving behind the two blue eyes of the beloved that have caused so much misery and lying down under a linden tree, the lover finds all is well again.

Mahler’s gorgeous music enables us to experience such sadness that is surely a part of every human journey in a healing and regenerative way. Dunn’s voice was in fine shape tonight. Her sensitive and well-controlled tones filled the auditorium with pathos, with hope, and with possibility.

After the intermission, Imani Mosley, a musicology PhD candidate in the Music Department at Duke, read Nikky Finney’s poem, “A New Day Dawns.” Finney was the keynote speaker of the Franklin Humanities Center’s Conference, “Breath, Body and Voice,” of which this concert was the final event. The poem was written in the early hours of July 5, 2015 after South Carolina House members voted to send a bill to the Governor to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. The poem reflects on the journey, the migrations, the diaspora. It concludes with the unanswered question that haunts every such journey, “Who are we now? What new human cosmos can be made of this tempest of tears, this upland of inconsolable jubilation?” The journey is not yet over.

The featured work on the program was the premiere of Stephen Jaffe’s Migrations (Chamber Concerto No. 4 for violin and ensemble). It is in three broad parts, titled “Walking,” “Evocation” and “Diasporas,” each containing three or four sub-sections with suggestive, but non-specific titles. Jaffe writes in the program notes, “My new concerto was created as I witnessed the breathtaking events of 2016, but its only specific contribution to political discourse would be if it opened the heart of mind. It’s mostly a musical idea. But music – even the most abstract kind – can serve to keep the ray of hope alive.”

The concerto opens with the solo violinist Gabriel Richard playing a haunting lyrical melody as he walks slowly from the back of the auditorium to the stage. It ends with him at the end at the front of the balcony on one side and solo violinist, Eric Pritchard, on the other side playing a poignant song of hope.

The chamber ensemble was conducted by the composer. This is a substantial work with great variety of solo and ensemble opportunities for all the instruments throughout. It is the kind of music that is built on all the music of past generations and looks forward bravely to a future no one can guess. It is the kind of music that knows the language well and acknowledges the power and mystery of music which is not yet fully understood.