Fire in the eyes of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Fire in the baton and hands of Jaap van Zweden. Sparks licking across the amber-lit wood of David Geffen Hall. The World Premiere of Julia Wolfe’s new work promised combustable multi-media elements that delivered an inferno of music and meaning.

After a first half that ended with Anthony McGill’s playfully accomplished interpretation of Copland’s clarinet concerto accompanied by the reduced forces of a string orchestra, it was a beefy stage that we returned to after the interval. A full-strength Philharmonic sat under a panoramic projection screen which bore the cutting patterns of some unspecified garment. Behind them, five young women wearing the sober costume of late nineteenth century immigrants begin to sing. Each of the four movements of Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth is driven by text that has its own quiet heritage and power. In the first of these movements (Immigration) the text is taken from Mollie Wexler’s oral history and as the quintet of young voices begin to sing the simple words of Mollie’s account of immigration they treble in number as more bodies join them on stage, all in the plain white blouse and muted skirt uniform. They sway as if tossed by the waves being projected onto the screen above them; hands slapping percussively on sterna give a sense of the excitement and optimism of this voyage to a new land.

In one short movement, the tone is set for the work. Visceral accuracy, emotional intensity and theatrical communication all tumble into the hall — Jaap van Zweden nurtures the intensity from one movement to the next by stifling the pockets of applause that are not on the same schedule as the performers. At the heart of the injustice that Wolfe writes about here is the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (1911) that killed over 100 young immigrants. The audience must be drawn into this soundworld to deliver maximum human empathy and devastation and in movement 2 (Factory) she takes us there. The clacking of sewing machines and chugging of looms propels the orchestra while a simple modification has turned immigrants’ skirts into workers’ overalls. Their voices are as versatile as their costumes (designed by Márion Talán) and gnashing shears above their heads the vocal texture takes on an unfamiliar sediment to move with the adapted Yiddish folk song being sung.

From factory floor to protest, the women leave the stage and occupy the front of the auditorium, joined by scores of girls who appear from the back of the hall. The effect is dramatic and enveloping. ‘I want to talk like and American’ they sing in an almost dystopian reworking of West Side Story, their voices haunted by the harsh realities of immigration. The videos (designed by Jeff Sugg) now show photos of young women not much older than the choir members who are giving them voices in the hall. They link arms in protest and spit out the words ‘then I had fire in my mouth — fire, fire, fire, fire!’. Tragedy follows protest as Wolfe’s work reaches its climax, telling the story of the fire which claimed so many lives. Here, the young voices hold us all to account. ‘I have tried the good people of the public and I have found you wanting’: Rose Schneiderman made her speech at the original Metropolitan Opera House on 39th and Broadway, a short ride from where this audience sits. As the young women sing the names of the dead, this theatrical evening with the New York Philharmonic and a cast of creative collaborators attempts to restore some dignity to their demise and prompts questions about those who find themselves vulnerable and voiceless in our society today.

Read more about Julia Wolfe’s remarkable work here.

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