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March 2015
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Composer with Chicago Roots Encounters Controversy at Carnegie

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Composer and former-Chicagoan Jonas Tarm was shocked to learn that his piece “Marsh u Nebuttya” commissioned for the New York Youth Symphony will not be performed as scheduled on Sunday, March 8th at Carnegie Hall. The nine-minute piece, which means “March to Oblivion” in Ukrainian, includes a musical quotation of “Horst-Wessel-Lied,” the Nazi party anthem. Tarm’s symphonic work also includes a quotation from the anthem of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Born in Estonia, Tarm moved to Chicago at the age of 10, and was featured on WFMT’s Introductions when he was still a senior at Highland Park High School in a two-part program that aired in 2011 and 2012. Now 21, Tarm is a junior at the New England Conservatory of Music.

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Tarm was selected to compose a new piece as part of the orchestra’s First Music program. Shauna Quill, the Symphony’s Executive Director explained in a statement issued on the organization’s website that, “He was chosen last spring for the commission from among a strong group of candidates by an impartial panel of seven composers and music educators. The new piece he created in response to receiving the commission received its first hearing when it was given to the orchestra to rehearse in December.”

After “Marsh u Nebuttya” premiered last month at the United Palace Theater,  one audience member in attendance issued a letter of complaint to the Symphony signed “a Nazi survivor.”

The New York Youth Symphony has long been committed to supporting works by living composers. Its First Music composition series has commissioned over 137 composers since 1984, and the organization is also dedicated to training the next generation of young composers through its own Composition Program.

Quill said, “Our mission at the NYYS is to educate and inspire young musicians, composers, and conductors. We also encourage creativity within a culture of mutual respect and honesty,” and that the “decision to remove a commissioned work from Sunday’s performance was not a decision taken lightly. It was a highly unusual step for us – one which was taken thoughtfully.”

Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship, has attacked the Symphony’s decision to cancel the performance as an attempt to “sanitize contemporary art,” in the New York Times.

Quill stated that Tarm had not discussed the reference to “Horst-Wessel-Lied” with the organization until she spoke with him on the phone Monday, March 2, 2015. “Without this information and give the lack of transparency, we could not continue to feature his work on the program.”

Late Thursday afternoon, March 5, 2015, the National Coalition Against Censorship issued a follow-up statement urging the Symphony to, “to reverse the last minute decision to cancel the Sunday Carnegie Hall performance of Jonas Tarm’s “Marsh u Nebuttya” (“March to Oblivion”) and proceed with the program as previously planned.”

“While some members of the audience may have traumatic associations with the march, the same might be true of any artwork referencing painful moments in history,” the statement continued. “There is nothing that can damage the credibility of a cultural institution as much as act of censorship. Cultural institutions can play a crucial role in promoting understanding and peaceful dialogue in a world of conflict, but only if they stand up to pressure groups from all sides.”

Tarm stated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that, “This piece is not to provoke anyone, it’s to evoke, to make people think and feel.” He maintains that the piece is about “conflict, totalitarianism, and nationalism.”

Was the New York Youth Symphony right to cancel this performance? Listen to some of Tarm’s original compositions that aired previously on WFMT, and let us know what you think in the comments below.

  • Ann

    They were wrong to cancel the performance! Art flourishes when it causes controversy.

  • Ann

    Also, I think that many people now would not even recognize the musical quotation. By highlighting it and even canceling the performance, we are giving the the song way too much importance!

  • Carmen

    Carnegie Hall, being a private organization, has the right to cancel anything it sees as offending to one or more members of its music department and audience. Case closed.

    • barb

      Carnegie Hall did not cancel the performance. The administration of the Youth Symphony did. Ann also makes a valid point: many people now would not recognize the hateful anthem. Surprisingly, no one at the Youth Symphonty did, including the conductor who worked on the piece for months. This is a clear example of negligence on his part. Had he acquainted himself with the score’s references, he could have at least addressed the composer about its possible offense to Holocaust survivors and they could have somehow comes to terms with the issue long before the piece was performed.

  • Nick001

    Carmen, of course they have the ‘right’ to cancel. But that doesn’t mean that they should. Imagine someone cancelling a performance of the 1812 Overture in Moscow because some descendants of the villagers of Borodino who were slaughtered by Napoleon’s invading army were offended by the incorporation of La Marseillaise into the work. That would be within their rights, I suppose, but just stupid.

  • Jim

    I agree with Ann and Nick001.

  • Ron

    Shame on those associated with the New York Youth Symphony who voted to remove Jonas Tarm’s piece “Marsh u Nebuttya”. Just because a composition contains a quote from such a hideous source does not mean it is promoting that source. The context has to be taken into account. This behavior is just the type of censorship totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany at that time, and for example, the former Soviet Union did to composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, etc.

  • James Madison

    The first step on the road to dictatorship is self censorship