Last night, I attended a performance, Everything Rises at Royce Hall presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA), co-created and featuring Grammy-winning classical violinist Jennifer Koh and Bass-Baritone Davóne Tines with music by Ken Ueno. It had premiered the night before at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s St. Anthony’s Chapel.
Everything Rises is a work of such originality and, at the same time, a so deeply personal exploration of identity by both Koh and Tines that it is challenging to describe.
Koh is Korean-American, and Tines is Black and gay. Very often they are the only people of color in their respective orchestral and symphonic performances. As classical performers, both live with the challenge of presenting as distinctive individuals while performing as part of a collective and under another’s direction. As persons of color in the classical world and in American society, they have succeeded at code switching – but at what cost? Everything Rises, which was developed with an all BIPOC creative team, represents a musical declaration of self, an acknowledgement of past and present racism, and hope for a better future.
The performance begins with Koh standing on stage silent, head down, not moving as behind her footage plays of Koh at 17 performing in the last round of the International Tchaikovsky Competition where she won the top medal. There is also footage of her Korean-born mother, Gertrude Soonja Lee Koh, who escaped from North Korea and experienced harsh treatment during the Korean war. In the film clip, she is apologizing to Jennifer for Jennifer being first generation in this country and her mother being an immigrant.
As Koh uses her violin to almost deconstruct its sound, using a bow whose long horsehairs fall freely from its tip, Tines takes the stage to vocalize. At first, they are each dressed as they might for a classical performance with Tines in Tails and Koh in a gown. Later, they will change into clothes that better reflect their interior lives (with Tines eventually appearing in what I can only describe as a Billy Porter style Men’s gown).
Tines draws on the experience of his grandmother Alma Lee Gibbs, who was a victim of racist violence. Tines sings about her past, as well as those of his forebears who were slaves and how in the generations that followed, their great-grandchildren graduated from places like Julliard, MIT and Harvard. Koh performs “Soonja’s Song” that tells of the traumas witnessed by Koh’s mother and how the past drives Koh and Tines’ own present and their singular and at times lonely path, as if their success was a balm for the past.
Strange Fruit – Jennifer Koh and Davone Tines — Age Restricted – Play on YouTube
Perhaps the most haunting moment in the performance is when Tines performs “Strange Fruit” the Abe Meeropol-Milt Raskin song about lynching popularized by Billie Holiday. Koh plays fast and furious at first, angry discordant notes coalescing into careful accompaniment as Tines slowly intones the words of the song: “Black bodies hangin’ from the poplar trees…..”
As Tines’ dirge-like declamation gathers strength, Koh’s playing becomes more lyrical – electronic beats fill in and Tines’ voice becomes sweeter describing “the fruit for the crows to pluck… the strange and bitter crop…. A strange and bitter cry.” And just as this beautiful song tells an awful truth, Koh and Tines’ acknowledgement carries with it a spirit of solidarity.
Tines calls out to “the better angels of our nature” as Everything Rises ends on a note of uplift (literally and figuratively) as Koh and Tines sit beside each other on stage.
Running around an hour in length, this performance exists in a category of its own. Koh has performed as Einstein in Robert Wilson – Phillip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, and although this feels written in the vocabulary of Wilson, to call it such does Everything Rises a disservice. Instead, it stands as an expression of two artists finding their voice. And in doing so, it makes one consider all that we suppress in order to pass personally and professionally in the world.
As I write this, all over the world Jews are preparing for the first night of Passover, celebrating the Exodus when Moses led the Jews out of slavery; Christians will be celebrating Easter, the resurrection of Christ; Muslims are observing Ramadan, celebrating the revelation of the Quran.
I write this in a house, my home, that sits on land once belonging to the Tongva tribe, in a state where less than a century ago Japanese were interned in camps, in a country where our screens fill with the murders of Black people and the harassment of Asians.
And yet, in spite of this, or perhaps because of this, art, music and performance remind us of our deepest hope, that over time, everything – and every one – rises.