When young musician Ertan Torgul left his home in Ankara, Turkey, at the age of 18, neither he nor his father necessarily envisioned him becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen and a leading San Antonio violinist with the San Antonio Symphony and SOLI Chamber Ensemble.
Like many immigrants, Torgul said, he carries with him a pang of guilt about having left home. “That loss is actually fairly profound,” he said of leaving his father and friends behind to start a new life.
On Sunday, the four-member SOLI Chamber Ensemble will perform The Clearing and the Forest, an original work by composer Scott Ordway and scenic designer Erica Eliot that references experiences of border-crossing refugees and immigrants like Torgul.
“Many, many people seek a world beyond their own world,” Ordway said, emphasizing that leaving home is a near-universal experience felt on many levels. Though he himself has moved multiple times – primarily seeking professional opportunities – his experiences have taught him to empathize with others who have left home not by choice.
“They bring with them a sense of loss and nostalgia even as they make better lives,” he said, and the point of his composition is “to build a bridge of empathy and to try to see how there’s a continuum” between a whole range of experiences of leaving home and attempting to start a new life elsewhere.
In order to develop his initial vision for what would become The Clearing and the Forest, Ordway enlisted the help of Eliot, whom he’d met in a college typography class. The two hit it off, realizing they shared a sensibility somewhat outside the traditions of their chosen disciplines of music and historic preservation, respectively.
“Scott and I share a similar aesthetic,” Eliot said, “an appreciation of the natural landscape rooted in finding beauty in things that others might not find beautiful.” Weeds are one example, as “things that would just be trash in your yard or cultivated garden … but as they exist in the landscape are incredible.”
Landscape preservation was an important part of her studies, she said, which led to an interest in working professionally with flowers and other flora. Ordway had seen Eliot’s flower-based art installations – she minored in art in college – and knew her work and ideas would be an ideal match for what the two term a “theater of music,” a departure from traditional sound-only chamber music.
For the ensemble’s performance in the McNay Art Museum’s Leeper Auditorium, Eliot’s set will incorporate various tree, plant, and botanical species from northern, middle, and southern climates.
The first movement, subtitled we must leave this place forever, incorporates northern fauna like pine tree branches “as natural signifiers of cold, northern forest,” Ordway said. The piece then moves through its second part, we must run like wolves to the end, toward the Act III conclusion the things we lost we will never reclaim with plants more familiar to those in southern climes. Throughout, the SOLI musicians will perform not only their assigned musical passages, but performative acts with props that reference objects people might take with them in preparation for a journey, like clothing, coins, important documents, and dolls.
Clarinetist Stephanie Key, pianist Carolyn True, and cellist David Mollenauer join Torgul in making up SOLI.
Performers also will move to various positions in the hall, creating a multidimensional musical space, Ordway said. The piece builds to a furious climax, he said, ending in a single, loudly struck piano note signifying the loss and nostalgia that an immigrant can never completely leave behind.
Explaining his intent for the piece, Ordway grew impassioned. “If you don’t feel for people who are fleeing persecution and violence, think about your own life – why did you leave your house this morning? Everybody wants something that is not in their immediate environment,” and must seek it out, he said.
In referencing nature, The Clearing and the Forest touches on another contentious issue. Speaking of the tenuous connection between humanity and the natural environment, Eliot said, “Every action we take has an impact, an effect on someone else,” and pointed out that there are “only 126 months left to the point of no return on climate change” – essentially a 10-year window to enact significant change in human behavior.
Though the work references such political touchpoints abstractly, “it’s reasonable to say that conversation underpins every discussion” the two have had in developing the work with SOLI, Ordway said.
“The clearing is a basic archetypal metaphor for the known and the unknown,” he said, describing the meaning behind the work’s title. “That line [between] is the end of what you can see and understand … a border between the world as you understand it and the world beyond.”
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The Clearing and the Forest is the finale of SOLI’s 25th season and Torgul’s last as artistic director of the ensemble. Key will take over that role next season and “propel the group forward for our next five years to the 30th [season], hopefully,” Torgul said. He will remain as violinist and managing director.
“For me personally it feels like I am handing the ensemble over to Stephanie on such a high note,” he said of ending his tenure with the Ordway and Eliot commission. “I feel very proud of what we have accomplished in the last seven years, and this particular performance is such a great way to say that somehow to the public.”
The SOLI Chamber Ensemble will perform The Clearing and the Forest on Sunday at 3 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 2:30. Information on tickets is available here.