Arts for All, Neighborhood Arts, World Music

Hibernian Hall is filled with Community Spirit and World Music for the Roxbury Stringfest

by Angela Hyde

The Roxbury Stringfest, on a chilly, early December Sunday, brings me to Hibernian Hall, a center for arts and culture housed in a former Irish dancing hall built in 1913. Stringfests have become a tradition of Celebrity Series’ Neighborhood Arts program, and this fourth annual Roxbury Stringfest brings together local string ensembles the Boston City-Wide String Orchestra and City Strings United with the Voci Angelica world music trio. Blue lights illuminate a floor littered with string instruments, an array of cellos and basses. Students line the side, some with their violins on their laps. Parents and audience members are front-and-center, ready to enjoy this free community concert. Students in front of me are chatting and plucking the strings of their instruments, their sheet music crisp and covered in little notes or the occasional doodle. I’m transported to my past in the school band and I’m happily nostalgic as the show begins.

First to perform is the Boston City-Wide String Orchestra, made up of individuals from the greater Boston area, as young as age nine and led by founder and director Betty Hillmon. They open the Stringfest with “Night Flight” by Bill Calhoun and Florence Price’s “The Goblin and the Mosquito,” with audience participation to ‘slap’ the mosquito at the end. It’s a fun piece, obviously enjoyed by players and audience members alike with its quick staccato notes. City Strings United is next, made up of young cello players ages three to sixteen. They perform two songs by their founder and director Bithyah Israel, “Pretty Please” and “Morning Time,” and I’m reminded of the deep rich sounds and the incredible range of the cello. The control the students show over the instrument is admirable, and the conductor pays special attention to the youngest students to her left, helping a girl who doesn’t look to be more than four or five years old stay in time with the music.

Excited clapping follows the City Strings United players off the stage, and then welcomes the Voci Angelica Trio. An international band with members hailing from three different continents, they offer an interesting mix of world, folk, and classical music. Singers Jodi Hitzhusen and Meena Malik are both operatically trained, harmonizing beautifully throughout the setlist. These elegantly mix with the percussion instrumentation of both singers, and the lush fusion of cello, played by Aristides Rivas, rounds out the extraordinary sound they produce.

They play songs from all over the globe, taking us as an audience on a multicultural, celebratory trek. First to Haiti, then China, then Venezuela, with a splash of audience participation as we’re asked to yell out in response to the singing, and there are smiles of merriment. We quickly move to Bulgaria, enjoying a powerful traditional song to celebrate winter. A New Year’s song from Japan is a delicate contrast. The trio draws out the holiday’s excitement while also paying homage to the detailed lightness of the song.

Their sixth song is a traditional song from the Māori tribe of New Zealand, titled Tarakihi,” involving hand and chest movements from the audience as well as guttural yelling, and young children excitedly dance along at the front of the audience.

Rounding out Voci Angelica’s performance are two more traditional songs, one from Mexico and the last from Egypt. This last song is a great opportunity for all the audience to see just how talented Rivas is with the cello, as the artist plays multiple solos to the beat of the percussion. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to watch deft fingers and a keen ear create lovely improvisations, all leading back into the song.

At the culmination of the Stringfest, all three groups perform together, with Boston City-Wide String Orchestra and City Strings United joining Voci Angelica on stage. After a few weeks of inter-group rehearsals, led by Voci Angelica, this is the final showcase of the hard work they have all done together.

“Como Llora Una Estrella,” a Venezuelan song by Antonio Carrilo, is arranged by Aristides Rivas and conducted by Bithyah Israel, with the beautiful sounds of the strings complementing the singing of Hitzhusen and Malik. Then follows an Israeli song by Moshe Wilensky, “Hora Mamtera,” composed to commemorate the significance of pipelines bringing water to South Israel. Rivas himself conducts this final piece, and before starting he has the students stand a bit straighter, hold their instruments a bit higher, and makes them laugh with a silly face. I am again hit with a keen bit of nostalgia, as I remember my much-loved band conductor in high school making many, many silly faces at us before a big show. It’s a joy to see such memories being made again for the students here today.

The show ends to a standing ovation, and we’re left with a final thank-you to the individuals who made the day happen. The members of Voci Angelica thank the dedication not only of Celebrity Series and the groups, but the parents as well. This is heart-warming, as I think to my own parents renting instruments or picking me up after a late band practice. All of the students, performers and audience members will hold this memory of community spirit and uplifting experience here in Hibernian Hall for many, many days to come.

As a College for Social Innovation Fellow in the Fall of 2018, Angela Hyde is an intern with the Advancement Department at Celebrity Series of Boston. She is a senior at Wheaton College MA, pursuing a Writing Degree, with a minor in Journalism Studies.

All photos by Robert Torres.

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