New York Times Review: Musicians of Color Reclaim Control in a White Space

person looking at the camera
October 14, 2022

Not long into “Everything Rises,” which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night, the bass-baritone Davóne Tines confronts the audience with an uncomfortable declaration.

“I was the moth, lured by your flame,” Tines, who is Black, sings with disdain. “I hated myself for needing you, dear white people: money, access and fame.”

“Everything Rises” is a timely collaboration, created by the Korean American violinist Jennifer Koh and Tines, that interrogates what it means to be a classical musician of color — to have chosen to make a creative life and professional career in a medium and a milieu that are overwhelmingly white, and to have tucked away fundamental elements of their identities in the process. The result of those inquiries is a compact, affecting and meditative multimedia work made entirely by people of color, including the composer and librettist Ken Ueno, the director Alexander Gedeon and the dramaturg Kee-Yoon Nahm.

Koh and Tines conceived this show several years ago. Its debut was originally scheduled for spring 2020, but because of the pandemic it instead premiered this April at the University of California, Santa Barbara. What happened across the United States between those two dates — particularly in terms of racial violence perpetrated against Black and Asian Americans — made the enterprise seem even more pressing.

The work begins with Koh and Tines dressed in typical concert dress: she in a wine-colored gown, crowned with demure dark hair, and he in a tuxedo. But he is also wearing a black blindfold, which leaves him feeling his way across the expanse of the Fishman Space stage at BAM. Early on, the audience sees a video clip of Koh’s winning performance as a 17-year-old at the 1994 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, an early highlight of what could have been a traditional career.

Soon enough, however, Koh reveals her true, hot pink hair. Tines puts his customary earrings on. The duo wear fitted black tank tops with voluminous black skirts — a coming into their full selves, and a recognition of the parallels of their individual paths.

Musically and narratively, “Everything Rises” underlines the fact that Koh and Tines, as well as their creative partners, are constantly code switching, depending on where they are and whom they are with. Ueno imaginatively expresses those frequent alternations between ways of being, drawing texts from their experiences and sampling audio recordings of interviews with the matriarchs of their respective families: Koh’s mother, Gertrude Soonja Lee Koh, who fled the Korean War to the U.S., and Tines’s grandmother, Alma Lee Gibbs Tines, a descendant of enslaved people.

Ueno weaves clips of these women recounting chilling, graphic stories. Alma recalls the lynching of one of her relatives — “they killed him and hung him, cut his head off and they kicked his head down the streets” — while Soonja remembers, “I saw people being tortured and people on the trees, bodies hanging on the trees.”

There are also moments of melancholic tenderness in “Everything Rises,” such as in the lullaby-like “Fluttering Heart,” and testaments to enduring resilience. Over the course of the show, Tines and Koh hold each other up literally and figuratively: hearing, acknowledging and amplifying each other’s stories.

Ueno’s score nods to 19th-century Western idioms, traditional Korean music and shimmering contemporary electronica. The effect is not a pastiche, but a sonic code switching. He also allows Tines and Koh — exemplary technicians and artists of profound intensity — to explore their full tonal and textural ranges. Moments of racial violence are evoked by Koh playing growling, guttural scratch tones, often on her open G string, while Tines cycles from his rich basso profundo to an ethereal falsetto. (The day before “Everything Rises” opened, BAM named Tines as its next artist in residence, beginning in January.)

The piece ends with a hopeful original song, “Better Angels,” which is preceded by a particularly haunting sequence. Ueno writes a new setting of “Strange Fruit,” the powerful song, made famous by Billie Holiday, that portrays violence against Black Americans and that, in part, led to Holiday’s prosecution by the U.S. government. It’s impossible not to imagine Holiday’s ancestral shadow as part of this work: Alongside Alma and Soonja, she becomes its third matriarch.

The New York Times