New classical work brings women of ‘The Odyssey’ to the fore
There must have been at least a slight sense of déjà vu for Kareem Roustom when he was approached to compose his recent work “Hurry to the Light.” The idea for the piece came from the string orchestra A Far Cry, whose season-ending concert on May 17 is a collaboration with Lorelei Ensemble, the inventive female vocal ensemble. Sarah Darling, violist for A Far Cry and the program’s curator, suggested to Roustom that he base the new work on “The Odyssey.”
This was, at least in part, territory with which the composer was already familiar. Roustom’s “Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea,” written in 2017, took inspiration from both Homer’s epic and Melissa Fleming’s book “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea,” which tells the harrowing story of Syrian refugee Doaa Al Zamel’s exile from her homeland. Roustom, who was also born in Syria, wove together the two stories — one mythological, one all too real — into a synthesis in which the solo clarinet takes on the roles of both protagonists.
But the new piece was to be quite different in both shape and character. Crucially, Darling told Roustom that she wanted him to use a new translation of “The Odyssey” by Emily Wilson. Wilson’s version has been highly praised for giving Homer’s language a strongly modern cast and dislodging many of the linguistic preconceptions that have built up around the poem over the years.
That opportunity to take a fresh look at an ancient and familiar text was important to both Darling and Lorelei director Beth Willer, both of whose ensembles prize openness to the new and unexpected. Both had conceived of this concert as a chance to displace conventions. “We knew that there was basically no traditional repertoire for women’s voices and strings, so there was a lot of room to play,” Darling wrote in an e-mail. “We were invested in designing a program that turned the traditional way of seeing things on its head.”
Roustom initially felt some anxiety — not about revisiting “The Odyssey” itself, since “the text is so vast,” he said during a recent phone interview. It was rather a question of what to focus on. After discussions with Darling and Willer — as well as Thomas Stumpf, a colleague of Roustom’s on the Tufts University music faculty — he crafted a text that takes the focus away from Odysseus himself. “Hurry to the Light” instead tells the story of the women of “The Odyssey,” and how their choices and actions influence his journey, from Circe’s careful setting out of his route home to a monologue from Anticlea, the ghost of Odysseus’s mother.
Gender issues, including female agency and the status of women, emerge sharply in Wilson’s rendering of the poem, and Roustom writes in his program note that he was struck by the way her translation cleared away some of “the misogynistic dust” of previous versions. In the interview, he pointed to her handling of the Sirens episode, a section of which he set as the fourth movement of “Hurry to the Light.” Previous translations of the poem have said that their song emerges from their “lips,” and this has become a source of the Sirens’ familiar image as sensual seductresses.
Wilson, though, insists that the Greek word usually rendered as “lips” actually means “mouth,” and the linguistic change transforms the source of their allure. “When you read the rest of the text,” Roustom said during the interview, “you realize that what they’re offering is not sensual pleasure, but knowledge — knowledge of how to get home.” When he wrote the music for that section, the composer avoided “seductive” melodies, and instead painted a sense of mystery and danger. “I suppose I tried to have the music bewilder rather than seduce,” he said.
The circumstance of having written two Odyssey-related works so close together raises a question about similarities and links between them. While there are musical connections, he said, including the way the Mediterranean Sea is depicted, the differences are stark. The concerto bears a close connection to the refugee crisis in Syria, a topic that is rarely far from Roustom’s thoughts. During the interview, he said that even with the much-reported removal of the Islamic State caliphate earlier this year, he finds it hard to be optimistic about the future of his country.
“I’ve written so many pieces that have reflected on various aspects of the crisis in Syria,” he said. “This piece gave me a chance to step away from that for a little bit. It was a welcome break.”
A Far Cry with Lorelei Ensemble
At Jordan Hall, May 17, 8 p.m. Tickets $25-$70. 617-585-1260, www.afarcry.org