Close Encounters With Music presents “For Such a Time as This,” a retelling of the biblical Esther story on Sunday, February 11, with the Avalon String Quartet
As Close Encounters With Music’s director Yehuda Hanani points out, the Book of Esther is one of only two books of the Bible that do not mention God. (The Song of Songs is the other.) Although set in a time of crisis – the threatened annihilation of the Jews in Persia – God does not directly guide the actions of Mordechai and Esther, who have to figure things out own their own.
Moreover, Hanani sees parallels between the world of the Megillah and the present time and its predicaments. “When you think of Mordechai and Esther, it's very much like today's American Jewry in an assimilated Diaspora,” he says.” The entire book does not mention Jerusalem. The entire book does not mention prayer in times of crisis, does not mention the Second Temple that has just been rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah. Jews were going back to Israel; but this is an assimilated group of Jewish people and very, shall we say, worldly. You can tell that from their names. Esther/Ishtar and Mordecai/Marduk are names that evoke pagan gods.” And yet the danger even threatens “people who are assimilated, people who are part of a society, people who are in the mainstream.”
And so, against a backdrop of conflicts roiling today's Jewish world, Hanani is staging “For Such a Time as This,” a work for string quartet and narrator that will receive its Berkshire debut as part of “The Art of the String Quartet” on Sunday, February 11 at 4 p.m., at St. James Place in Great Barrington. Composed by Stacy Garrop (with a libretto by Jerre Dye), “For Such a Time as This” reimagines the Purim story through the eyes of Esther and focuses on the themes of agency and reversal that animate the action of the Megillah. Says Garrop of her and Dye’s female-focused retelling of the story: “The main point of Esther’s story is that in a man’s world, she was single-handedly able to have the agency to change the course of what was about to happen.” She adds that “the reversal is how Esther is seen. She is first seen as just the wife of the king, an ineffectual female. But then she is the reason that the Jews are saved from their fate. She is revealed to have a huge amount of power.” The first-person perspective allows the listener to consider the point of view and emotions of Esther as events unfold around her.
Says Hanani: “We have a woman's voice telling the story and a woman composer writing the piece. So, it was unavoidable that there would be a feminist perspective on the idea that the woman is the hero. Even Vashti, who is supposed to be the idiotic sexpot who refuses to show her beautiful figure in front of all the king's guests, is treated with tremendous respect. She is actually protecting her dignity, and she doesn't let the king use her as an object, and this very much fits into today's perspective of this struggle of women to not be objectified. This moment in the story, I thought, was very contemporary, and Stacy amplifies it.”
This will be Close Encounters With Music’s second foray into Bible-themed works, the first being 2020’s staging of “Kohelet,” a work for four cellos and narrator (Sam Waterston in 2020) by Israeli composer Andre Hajdu. “For Such a Time as This” features the Avalon String Quartet with narrator Julia Bentley, who performed at its 2022 premiere in Chicago after its commission by the SDG Music Foundation.
It’s an interesting mix of spoken word and music. “The storytelling really spins this work,” asserts Hanani “The music reacts to the story, not the other way around.” Garrop says listeners should pay attention to the different recurring motifs she composed for all the main characters – Mordechai, Esther, the King, and the “sinister and skittish” Haman. “Esther is the narrator, but for the first central moment, where Mordecai says, ‘Who knows if you were chosen, Esther, for such a time as this,’ she actually sings for about a minute,” Garrop explains. “As I was constructing the piece, I kept thinking, wouldn't it be cool when she's contemplating what to do, whether she should take action or not – what if she only sings in that one spot? Julia Bentley is a singer and a narrator, so she fit the bill.”
The second half of the program will be Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 2, Explains Hanani: “He wrote it when he was 18, the year  Beethoven died. What adjective shall I use for the Beethoven's last five quartets? Sacred pinnacle. Astonishing. And Mendelssohn was devastated by them. He was so heavily influenced by those quartets.
“A year earlier, when he was 17, he wrote his A Midsummer Night's Dream music and his famous octet, which already would make him immortal as an amazing young genius. Here it is a year later and he is fully mature and he's writing a piece influenced by two forces. One is the late quartets and the other is he that falls in love for the first time. We don't know the girl's name, we don't know anything about her. But he writes a little poem about this girl, a very touching, very adolescent poem.
“There's an amazing second movement with the fugue, almost a paraphrase of a Beethoven late quartet fugue. And since I have the Avalon Quartet on the stage, I’ll have the rare opportunity to ask my colleagues to play the two themes of the fugues from Beethoven’s quartet and the fugue from Mendelssohn's quartet. This is not plagiarism, this is just a gesture of admiration, of worshiping almost, Beethoven's music.
“So, the love song is like a book. The first half of it is the beginning and it ends with the second half of his poem, his love song. This is a piece inspired by late Beethoven and early love.”
Find out more this weekend. “The Art of the String Quartet” will be presented by Close Encounters With Music on Sunday, February 11 at 4 p.m. at St. James Place, 352 Main Street in Great Barrington. The Afterglow Reception in Saint James Place’s Great Hall follows the concert in the Sanctuary Space. Meet the artists and composer Stacy Garrop and enjoy bites and beverages by Authentic Eats by Oleg.