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ELN review by Liane McAllister

European Literature Night 2018 review by Liane McAllister

European Literature Night: A Profound Emotional Experience Inspiring Creativity at All Levels

Praised as a “triumph, a profound emotional experience inspiring creativity at all levels,” the May 12 European Literature Night held forth at New York’s Bohemian National Hall, as the flagship project of the Czech Center.  Attracting 700 public visitors, this event was the gigantesque effort of 150 active participants, including 50 organizers, 15 authors and translators, 20 readers, 10 publishing houses, 10 composers, 25 musicians, 10 drama student actors and directors, and 20 visual artists.  Notably, and for the first time, over one-third of ELN’s 150 active participants starred students from the New School: Mannes School of Music, The School of Drama, and Parsons School of Design. “Mutual trust, shared values and the prestige of the New School” were foundations for this new partnership”, observes Czech Center director Barbara Karpetova

A fertile nine-month collaboration

 In the early fall of 2018, initial discussions between Pavlina Dokovska, Head of the Piano Department at Mannes and Czech Center Director Barbara Karpetova soon grew into an exciting, multi-arts venture. It would embrace New School music, drama and art students who were given the proper preparation and then free scope to create new works based on award- winning European novels. Heads of departments and deans carefully selected students based on their talent, reliability, motivation, schedule flexibility, and key developmental stages in their training.

In some cases, students chose their own texts; in other cases their teachers chose texts for them based on the books relevance to the student’s experience including their individual country of origin.

Drama students were required to research the histories of the writers to better understand the significance of their works and to get inside the material. Drama MFA actors and directors were then challenged to express the intense emotions in their selected texts, to flesh out the characters without props or costumes, and to create images without scenery.

Parsons students from the School of Art, Media and Technology applied their talents to a rich mix of media---including oil and acrylic on canvas; polymer clay, enamel, oil and spray paint, fabrics and handmade paper, modeling paste, and gilding flecks on wood panels; gelatin silver prints, digital c-prints, photography, video, and sound. The final results were bold interpretations of the messages and emotions perceived in their chosen texts. Parsons Associate Dean and Professor Lucille Tenazas, ably assisted by Masters in Professional Practice graduate Samia Husari, created a colorful, and informative poster and   program that perfectly expressed the global magic of the evening.

The logistical challenge

Organizing the European Literature Night was an exciting but daunting task  “unthinkable without Pavlina Dokovska and the New School’s support,’’ observes Ms. Karpetova. Months and weeks before the event came the huge logistical challenge of designating rooms and students for each of the 40-50 minute presentations.

Lastly, was the crafting of the special closing events in the Bohemian National Hall Ballroom. First came a talk by renowned Czech-born American illustrator and author Peter Sis, describing his new book about the Czech Kindertransport, the story of how Sir Nicholas Winton, saved 669 Jewish children from the holocaust, secretly transporting them to England.  Inspired in turn by this story, was the debut of an original “Nocturne” from student composer Logan Vrankovic.

The evening concluded with the performance of “Immer”  (“Always”), a song based on the poem of Nelly Sachs, a Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1966 for her holocaust inspired poetry. Lowell Liebermann, chairman of the Mannes Composition Department, composed the song.  Moved by Sachs’ haunting words and images, Liebermann created music to portray the passage of dying children’s souls reaching heaven after death.

Stretching their talents, breaking new ground

Music students

Mannes students interviewed were intensely appreciative of the unique artistic opportunities created by this ELN event. Following were important takeaways they shared.

Powerful literary/musical collaboration with a world-class European author, and carte blanche to create a new musical piece. First-time meetings were extremely affirming for the young composers. For example, upon hearing composer Lora Al-Ahmad’s piece, Georgi Gospodinov author of The Physics of Sorrow said  “I absolutely loved your composition; I heard all of my book in this.” Two-months ahead of time, Lora had painstakingly written and rewritten her composition until she was satisfied with all the “pieces of the puzzle’’.

Joint practice and rehearsal time with fellow Mannes instrumentalists enabled composers and performers to tweak the compositions and make suggestions, such as the choice of other instruments to include, new key registers and rhythms.

Music students gained invaluable public speaking experience in introducing their works briefly, powerfully and succinctly.

Interconnectivity of the Arts and Global Awareness were powerful

experiences for all participating New School students.  Following were yet other benefits for students and their teachers:

The opportunity to perform in an international cultural center, with exposure far beyond their familiar New School communityA masterful building design created a mini European Community with all six floors of the Bohemian Hall divided into dedicated individual rooms/spaces for the following countries: Spain, Greece, Malta, Bulgaria, Hungary, Portugal, Latvia, Netherlands, Romania, Belgium/Flanders, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland.

Networking with attending foreign diplomats and EU representatives opened up new artistic opportunities. For music students, there were discussions about the potential production of music CDs to be paired with the sale of a book, and future performances of the new music composition in European countries. Parsons students attracted interest in future international sales of their work, especially as their email addresses were published alongside their artwork identifications.  

Productive conversations and first-time meetings between New School music, art and drama students. For the future, Parsons professor Lucille Tenazas strongly advocates that students from the different disciplines regularly collaborate to fully prepare in advance for the next European Literature Night.

Engaging in an intimate and honest dialogue with a live audience, helped participants explore new impressions about the novel, its translation, the dramatic reading, the original music composition, and the artworks presented.  Tasty European foods and drinks served in many of the rooms, created a convivial and interactive environment.

A Seminal Learning Experience for New School Arts Students, Their Future Careers and Artistic Aspirations

Concludes, Stephen Brown-Fried, Head of Directing, New School/School of Drama, “Engaging with this body of European literature enabled the students to come in contact with work that was both artistically imaginative and also deeply entwined with the most pressing questions facing each country: such as how each country deals with its history, how human beings process the experience of war, what our individual responsibility is to the burdens of history”. “Our goal at the New School,’’ continues Brown-Fried, “is to train artist/citizens who use their artistry to build a more equitable and progressive society. “

Concurs Ms. Karpetova, “The books and arts presented at ELN transmitted ideas and messages from a world ostensibly far away across the Atlantic Ocean. They have introduced differences but also similarities such as the sense of humanity, equity and social empathy, Europeans and Americans share.  The festival highlights differences in perception and the way each of us receives information. Therefore the readings, visual art, films, architecture, design and music performances are able to appeal to the very large and diverse New York City community.’’

Moving towards the future

Based on the general public’s reactions and the success of this year’s European Literature Night, Ms. Karpetova would like to bring the festival to other American cities.  ELN and it’s partner organization are currently eyeing Washington D.C. as the next potential target city.

And for 2019, Professors Dokovska, Brown-Fried and Tenazas very much hope to have the New School participate in the next NYC-based European Literature Night. “There is something so exciting about introducing the European tradition of events built around readings!’’ affirms Ms. Dokovska.  

Article by Liane McAllister, Patron, Mannes School of Music


 Thank you to the following individuals who contributed so generously to this article:

Barbara Karpetova, Director, Czech Center, New York; Pavlina Dokovska, Head of the Piano Department, Mannes School of Music and Artistic Director of the Mannes Sounds Festival; Stephen Brown-Fried, Head of Directing, New School/School of Drama; Lucille Tenazas, Professor of Communication Design and Associate Dean of Parsons School of Art, Media and Technology. 

I also wish to thank the following music performance students and composers for their valuable insights:  Lora Al-Ahmad, Avinoam Foonberg, Jorge Tabares Garcia, Karl Ronnenburg, Logan Vrankovic, Jihwan Yoon, and Wenting Yu.

MANNES Student Instrumentalists and Composers: 

Right to left:  Lora Al-Ahmad, Karl Ronnenburg, Jorge Tabares Garcia, Logan Vrankovic, and Wenting Yu.

Award winning Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov listens to a dramatic reading of his novel The Physics of Sorrow.

Composer and pianist Lora Al-Ahmad performs her new piece inspired by Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow with violist Adam Kramer.

Composer and pianist Avinoam Foonberg

Composer Jihwan Yoon

Liane McAllister

Article author Liane McAllister wrote as Senior/International Editor for Gifts & Decorative Accessories magazine for over twenty years. Currently, she serves on the advisory board of Bulgarian Concert Evenings in New York and collaborates on special projects with the Mannes School of Music.