When composer Iman Habibi traveled from his home in Toronto to Philadelphia for the world premiere of “Jeder Baum spricht” (”Every tree speaks”) last spring, he never imagined that the Philadelphia Orchestra would be playing his piece to empty seats.
But as local governments started warning against large gatherings, events fell like dominoes. On March 12, between a morning rehearsal and the evening premiere, the orchestra decided to close the concert to in-person audiences and stream the event online. Habibi was one of the few people allowed in the hall. There, he listened to his relentlessly hopeful piece reverberate around the vast, vacant space. It was written as a meditation on climate change but now resonated amid a new crisis.
More recently, the Boston Symphony Orchestra paired “Jeder Baum spricht” with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral.” Both pieces can be heard in the second online concert of this month’s Andris Nelsons-conducted “The Spirit of Beethoven” series. Reached via phone at home, Habibi spoke about his piece, its inspirations, and its implications.
Q. Tell me how this piece came about. What exactly did the Philadelphia Orchestra ask you to write?
A. I was commissioned to write a five-minute piece in dialogue with Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies, in celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. It’s a really monumental task. So for me it was very important to extract the essence of these symphonies as much as I could, and I think for me, that essence was nature. A lot of people think of [the Fifth] as this big philosophical statement with the Fate motif, but in all likelihood, the Fate motif was inspired by the song of the yellowhammer, a bird that Beethoven would have heard in the parks in Vienna. And we know from Beethoven’s writings that nature was an escape for him. He always went to nature to compose. And this was a guy living right at the middle of the Industrial Revolution, a turning point in human history as far as our contribution to climate change is concerned. In my piece, I wanted to allow listeners to see the symphony from a contemporary lens. I thought if Beethoven was alive today, and he wanted to say something, given his love for nature, he probably would have written something about climate change.
Q. Did you find other common threads between Beethoven and climate change?
A. I feel like there’s just so much in his music that is about hope. And I think that’s something I’ve also tried to do in my piece. Because I think as much as the climate crisis is such a catastrophe, and at this point really beyond our control — if we lose hope and fall into a defeatist attitude, there’s nothing left for us to do. We can still slow it down even if we can’t stop it.
Q. Tell me about the premiere in Philadelphia. What was it like for you?
A. I was in Philadelphia for about a week before. On March 12, they had one case in Philadelphia. It was not on any of our minds that we would have to cancel the concert. But that morning at the hall, it was clear something was wrong. The orchestra didn’t want to cancel because they had rehearsed so much, and so much funding had gone into this. So it was really a miracle that they managed to contact the local radio station they partnered with, and a local TV station, and they all came with their equipment.
I thought it was going to be viewed by a few hundred people and then just go into oblivion. [But] when we went back to our hotel room we saw that it already had 350,000 views. It really blew up more than any of us anticipated, and it became a symbol of what was to come for the music industry after that.
Q. Any thoughts about responses to COVID-19 versus the climate crisis?
A. The first thing I would say is that they’re very much connected. We know the frequency at which pandemics are happening is related to the climate crisis. We’re probably going to see more pandemics because of the dislocation of people from their homelands, much more movement, much more spreading of viruses.
In the early days of the pandemic, I really hoped everything could change for the better. Speaking for the classical music industry, we’re big carbon polluters. We’re so dependent on travel, and it’s not efficient travel. You’ll see a famous pianist or cellist travel across the world to play with one orchestra. Then a pianist in the [orchestra’s] town is traveling to another place. Our industry is built on prestige: the prestige of going to a great school, playing with an amazing orchestra, playing at Carnegie Hall. I think if we can rethink these things, so that we can give just as much importance to the person who is doing tremendous work locally and bringing music to underrepresented communities, and celebrate that just as much as we celebrate the person who’s performing at Carnegie Hall ... I think this industry would look very different.
THE SPIRIT OF BEETHOVEN
Available now. www.bso.org/now
Interview was condensed and edited. A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.