I didn’t think it was possible for Julia Wolfe to outdo her 2014 Anthracite Fields, but I was wrong. Fire in my mouth, which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on January 24-26, 2019, was one of the most incredible performances I’ve ever witnessed, and I’m tempted to just copy and paste the fire emoji 800 times in place of a review. The Philharmonic, led by their energetic music director Jaap van Zweden, combined forces with vocalists from The Crossing and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City for Wolfe’s new oratorio, all of which culminated in a moving performance that stunned the completely sold-out audience.
Within the span of an hour, Wolfe not only traverses a widely-varying musical terrain, but conveys a historical narrative whose political significance feels particularly urgent in 2019. As in Anthracite Fields, which is about Pennsylvania coal miners, Wolfe here concerns herself with American labor history. Fire in my mouth examines the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy, during which 146 workers (mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women) died when the building was overtaken by fire (the workers could not escape as the doors were locked to prevent them from taking breaks). Wolfe musicalizes the sounds of protest, oral history, Yiddish and Italian folk songs, and factory machinery.
The oratorio was preceded by two other works by American composers. Steven Stucky’s “Elegy,” from August 4, 1964, is similarly based on happenings from U.S. history. Stucky’s oratorio focuses on the events of August 1964 (including the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the murders of three civil rights workers). The oratorio’s seven-minute “Elegy” can be performed as a stand-alone orchestral piece. Although Jaap van Zweden had conducted the world premiere in 2008, the New York Philharmonic premiere was plodding: the repeated descending two-note motif sounded more like a slog than a lament.
The orchestra was much more engaged during Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano. The presence of African American soloist Anthony McGill in center stage was a stark reminder of the white supremacy still so prevalent in most major symphony orchestras–the regrettable rareness of non-white faces in these principal roles. The concerto trots through many different moods and styles, all of which were conveyed with energy and joyousness by McGill and the Philharmonic. McGill’s cadenza was so animated and captivating that several audience members actually laughed in wonder.
The Philharmonic was then joined by The Crossing, as well as video projections by Jeff Sugg, for Fire in my mouth. The first word that appeared on the screen–“immigration”–was a striking introduction to the piece, reminding us that, although the piece depicts historical events, its message is still relevant today during the ongoing dehumanization and cruelty taking place at the U.S. border. The Crossing sang words from an oral history by Mollie Wexler (“without passports or anything, without passports”), the women swaying back and forth like ocean waves.
During the second movement, “Factory,” the words of Yiddish and Italian folk songs were stitched together with the strings emulating sewing machines (via col legno and over pressure) and the metallic sound of dozens of pairs of scissors snapped shut simultaneously. The rattling “sewing machine” sounds became more and more ominous as the orchestral and choral music built to an almost unbearably level of intensity. This cinematic bombast would have felt misplaced in a different piece. But as photos of the immigrant women’s faces scrolled across the projector, it was clear that these sounds, in this order, at this volume, were what was owed to these women and their story.
“Protest” was the strongest of the four movements. The vocalists filed off the stage and stood in front of it singing “I want to talk like an American / I want to sing like an American / I want to burn like an American” as the Young People’s Chorus processed down the aisles and sang words from a speech by activist Clara Lemlich: the effect was utterly chilling. This third movement was an indictment of intolerable working conditions, of racism, of sexism–of the systemic oppression that reifies certain sounds as “protest music” while others get forgotten and reduced to silence over the course of a mere century.
The final movement, “Fire,” highlighted the voices of testimony from witnesses to the tragedy (“I noticed the ends of her hair began to burn…”) and the names of those whose voices were extinguished. The 146 victims’ names appeared on the projection while they were sung by the women’s chorus (who had returned to the stage), their voices underlined by breathy violins and punctuated by harsh metallic clangs. These final moments were moving, but the most memorable moments took place during the third movement. With the girls choir singing at us from the aisles, and the women choralists singing at us from in front of the stage, the audience was surrounded by voices overlapping into an almost-unintelligible mélange coalescing into a protest, a lament, a caution towards the future, and a scorching condemnation of xenophobia.