It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since composer Judd Greenstein last worked with the sextet yMusic. And yet, Together was meant for an earlier debut. COVID changed not only the timing of the release, but the nature of the work. The rewritten version mirrors the progression of the pandemic. The first movement was written for players collaborating from a distance; the second for hybrid play; the third for in-person performance. Soon after release, the ensemble will finally play the piece in public.
While the title celebrates human proximity, it also serves as a reminder of spring 2020, when the word became ubiquitous: alone together, we’re all in this together. Commercials, banners, pots and pans all proclaimed this new solidarity. Unfortunately, it didn’t last ~ but for a brief, shining moment, we seemed to be united in fear, grief and resolve. Greenstein’s piece is doubly powerful due to its positive tone, implying not just the reuniting of family and friends, but the reclaiming of a common cause. As the piece continues to expand and grow, it sings without words of our highest possible ideals. The shaking hands of the cover art imply not only greeting, but commonality.
The piece begins with solo flute, like a single bird flying over a softer city and wondering where all the people have gone. Soon other voices join in, like faces appearing in apartment windows or on Zoom screens. The violin offers consolation, encouragement, feedback; the clarinet strikes a more serious tone, acknowledging the grief and struggle; the cello reflects the drama of the early days, when the city that never slept was put on pause.
In the second movement, the players nudge closer, reflecting the tentative get-togethers, the lawn parties, the outdoor dining, the hands not yet shaking, but waving. The string trio establishes a hummable theme, laying the groundwork for the sublime entry of the trumpet ~ only a few notes at first, then receding, ceding space again for the flute, reflecting the ups and downs, the changing risks and regulations, the steps forward and back. Once we’ve heard the trumpet, we know it will return, prompting the other instruments to rejoice. By the end, “Together” turns into a dance, like those in Medieval times that celebrated the end of winter and the return of warmth.
The dance becomes a video, directed by Adam Larsen with choreography by Sue Schroeder. The dancers are quarantined in their homes, separate and sad. One languishes on a hardwood floor, conveying lethargy. Another puts a hand to cheek, remembering touch. A third simulates a hug. In the second movement, they escape, twirling in their yards, reaching hands to the skies. In the third, they find each other; one dancer peers around a tree and meets another! Turns out they all live near the same woods (we’re guessing not, but it’s a great metaphor). Their movements are at first separate, learning how to relate to each other again, telling their individual stories. By the end, they are smiling, joyful, together. At long last, they touch.
Together was released on February 11, the day after mask mandates were lifted in New York. The timing could not have been better. There’s still a long way to go, but this release marks the end of one phase and the beginning of another. We are now together in body, hoping that we might put our differences aside and grow closer in spirit as well. (Richard Allen)