Artists have long created art as a means of political protest with works like Picasso’s “Guernica”? now a tribute to victims of war. Composers have a less direct means of rebellion than the more literal expression of painters, photographers and playwrights. But even if there had not been descriptions in the program, the new music performed at the Great Hall at Cooper Union on Saturday evening during a concert commemorating the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq clearly evoked conflict and anguish.
The program, “The Rest Is Silence” was presented by Ensemble Π, a contemporary-music group with a political bent. The first half included Scene 2 from John Harbison’s “Abu Ghraib” This powerful excerpt, based on an Iraqi song, veers between a melancholy, lamenting cello melody, evocatively played by Paul Tobias, and dissonant, angry piano interjections, performed by Idith Meshulam, the ensemble’s director. The work seemed a fitting continuation of fiery antiwar comments spoken by Naomi Wolf, which included descriptions of her experience as a journalist in Sierra Leone.
Ms. Meshulam also performed a solo piece: the American premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” based on a 17th-century Irish song about love and war. Incorporating angry cluster chords, dissonant meanderings and hints of lyricism, the work ended questioningly: “inconclusive, just like the ongoing war now” according to the composer’s description.
Another antiwar statement was offered by the Iraqi actress and singer Namaa Alward. A former member of the resistance against Saddam Hussein, she fled to Norway, where she met the singer and composer Kristin Norderval. They both performed “Far From Home” a moving work by Ms. Norderval that blended fragments of Iraqi folk songs with electronic processing and spoken word.
Repression in South Africa during the apartheid era was highlighted by two excerpts from the artist William Kentridge’s surreal, remarkable film “Nine Drawings for Projection.” Members of the ensemble performed extracts from the elegant score by Philip Miller, a frequent Kentridge collaborator, which includes a melancholy, lyrical trumpet melody. Memorial pieces opened and concluded the concert. Lou Harrison’s “In Memory of Victor Jowers” (originally scored for clarinet and piano or English horn and harp), honoring a friend who died of blood cancer. In this arrangement the haunting melody was assigned to the euphonium, gracefully played here by Monique Buzzarté and accompanied by Ms. Meshulam.
Fittingly, the program ended with a fiery and emotive performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, a memorial for a close friend of the composer’s. With plaintive intensity Ms. Meshulam, the violinist Airi Yoshioka and Mr. Tobias illuminated the seething undertones of this work, a protest by a man whose artistic and personal freedoms were constantly sabotaged.