Haitian Musical Legacy Resounds In Vivid Hues Of Orchestrated Songs

Nathalie Joachim performed her ‘Suite from Fanm D’Ayiti‘ with the Oregon Symphony. (Bitter Jester Studios)

PORTLAND — Nathalie Joachim’s ability to honor tradition and innovate within it was on full display with her latest creation, a group of songs from her Grammy-nominated album, Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti). Commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, Joachim’s Suite from Fanm D’Ayiti layered sounds from Haiti in an arresting arrangement for orchestra. With the composer playing flute and singing, her concoction received a stunningly lush world premiere by the Oregon Symphony under the baton of music director David Danzmayr on June 4 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

After graduating from The Juilliard School and The New School, the Brooklyn-born Joachim has successfully navigated the classical and indie-rock landscapes. The composer also has strong ties to Haiti, where her parents live on a farm that has been passed down through seven generations of her family. Using the skills of an ethnomusicologist, she has mined the oral heritage of her relatives and their neighborhoods. That personal journey is brought to fruition in Fanm d’Ayiti.

‘Fanm d’Ayiti’ was released by New Amsterdam Records in 2019.

The complete Fanm d’Ayiti, commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series, consists of eleven songs. Recorded by Joachim with the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet, it was released on the New Amsterdam Records label in 2019. For the Suite, Joachim orchestrated five selections, and in her performance with the Oregon Symphony, she included insightful introductory remarks that added a warm informality to the concert.

Each number featured Joachim singing in Kreyòl (Haitian Creole) and playing flute. Her clear and pleasant soprano floated above the texture of the orchestra, but sometimes it was not loud enough. Several pieces were infused with recordings of girls singing folk songs. Melodic and rhythmic threads were interwoven and layered upon each other like an intricate cassoulet.

Most of the songs had a spiritual message, expressing a love of God even when you don’t have much to offer. “Prelid” established an atmosphere of joyful hope. “Alléluia” continued that feeling with a more dance-like rhythm. “Resevwa Li” featured soft drumming as from a distance, and Joachim’s voice glided into lovely high notes in an improvised way. “Madan Bellegarde” included a voiceover of one of Joachim’s grandmothers and delicate duets between Joachim and the strings. “God Fanm D’Ayiti” conveyed the resilience of Haitian women in the face of terrible odds and their call for freedom. It included the Kreyòl word “Ayibobo,” which Joachim explained as “Let it be so.”

Before the Joachim premiere, the orchestra performed Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No 3. Based on compositions for solo lute from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods, the suite is divided into four movements for string orchestra. Channeling the pre-Classical era, the Oregon Symphony conjured an atmosphere of graceful melancholy that was lightened with dance-like passages and polished off with a bold finale.

Danzmayr also led a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. The conflict between the vindictive desires of the Roman general against his hometown and the pleading of his mother and family to cease and desist was brought into sharp focus with incisive playing. From the defiant blows at the beginning of the piece to the resignation and limp demise of Coriolanus at the end, the drama of the music attained a visceral quality that was memorable.  

Music director David Danzmayr led the orchestra in a program that included Beethoven and Respighi. (Jason Quigley)

Danzmayr and company also excelled with Respighi’s I pini di Roma (The Pines of Rome). They vividly conveyed the mayhem of children chasing and teasing each other in “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” movement. Dusky and mournful tones, enhanced by a solitary offstage trumpet, deftly painted the stillness of life in “Pines Near a Catacomb.” The evocative playing of principal clarinetist James Shields and the eerie strings gave the “The Pines of the Janiculum” a mysterious, dreamy state that was exquisitely complemented by the recording of the nightingale. The Roman legion almost seemed to march into view during “The Pines of the Appian Way,” which Danzmayr built into a climactic ending that triumphantly peaked on the final chord.

The only downer was the sparse attendance. The concert was held during the afternoon in order to accommodate events under way at the Portland Rose Festival. The small audience, however, didn’t seem to diminish the spirits of the musicians, who played with terrific intensity and were rewarded with a standing ovation. Another positive note is that Joachim, who is a partner in the Oregon Symphony’s Creative Alliance, will return next season. Ayibobo!