Scott Ordway/SOLI Chamber Ensemble ~ The Clearing and the Forest

Before COVID, a refugee crisis was brewing on the U.S./Mexico border.  Although the news cycle moved on, the same crisis is ongoing, one of many across the globe.  Today there are over 82 million refugees in the world, and over a dozen major crises from Ukraine to Afghanistan to Syria to Sudan.  When composer Scott Ordway was moved by images of children being torn from their parents, he saw only the tip of the iceberg.

When we see such images, or those of similar horror, we can be overwhelmed, paralyzed, unsure of what, if anything, we might do.  Ordway composed a theatrical work, which premiered in San Antonio.  The floor was littered with forest elements, denoting the difficult passage; by the end, pine boughs and branches were replaced by oranges, producing an aromatic aroma and a colorful canopy.  The album, performed by the SOLI Chamber Ensemble, unfolds in three acts, the journey implying both empty nest and awaiting nest, as portrayed in the cover photo.

“Prologue” yields 21 seconds of chimes, challenged by a dark piano chord in “Summons.”  Already the disruption has begun.  The piano’s higher register reflects the heart of those whose home has grown inhospitable: cold in tone, if not in climate.  The families consider leaving their northern locale in search of safety and warmth.  But how can they abandon everything they know: houses, kin, land?  This is the unspoken side of the crisis: before they were refugees, those displaced felt connected to their communities and to each other.  The internal trauma is often greater than the external.  To leave is a risk, to stay even more so.  Clarinet, violin and cello bear the turbulence of heart and mind.  “Paper” is especially poignant, as notes are reduced to scrawls and tears.  The rising scales of “Cloth” underline the necessity of movement.  Act I closes with the tender piano notes of “Warmth,” but the exodus has just begun, in the theatre rendition the players gathering their belongings and leaving the stage.

In the second act, solo performers underscore the loneliness of the transition.  Whenever another instrument joins in, there is a sense of cold comfort, of being in the crisis together, a burden shared and halved.  Throughout the act, Ordway conveys a feeling of searching: for loved ones, for solace, for home.  The center of “Processional No. 1” rises from this individual pathos to grasp something resembling resolve, a feeling that vanishes for a stretch before returning even stronger at the end of the second processional.  Have the refugees found their home?

The answer is twofold.  As indicated by the intermezzo “A prayer of thanksgiving,” the travelers have arrived in a new land.  But the title of the single-track third act, “The things we have lost we will never reclaim,” implies an eternal sorrow, more than hiraeth, a knowledge that people and places have been lost forever.  One need look no further than the obliterated villages of Ukraine to recognize this sadness; there is no home.  Ordway offers a realistic conclusion: hope and gratitude mingled with solemnity and sorrow.  The chimes return at the very end as the spotlight shifts from the refugees to the listeners.  Will we respond with prayers and tears, and move on?  Or is there something palpable we might do?  Ordway leads by example, empathy generating action.

You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ~ Exodus 23:9, RSV

Richard Allen

Available here

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