Every year, the Women’s Studies Research Center and the Department of Music hold the “Alfredo & Demitra DiLuzio Annual Concert.” Rosalie Repaldi Shane ’66, started the concert series in honor of her aunt and uncle who raised her and her brother after they were orphaned. Her aunt, Demitra was a dramatic soprano, and her uncle, Alfredo was a music teacher. When they passed away, Rosalie and her brother started an endowment for concerts in their honor.

This year’s concert was composed by Prof. Eric Chasalow (MUS), and performed by the Boston ensemble Sound Icon and the mezzo-soprano singer Sharon Harms. Chasalow wrote the song cycle “Muriel’s Songs” in honor of his grandmother, Muriel Gellert Chasalow. Muriel had always wanted to be a writer, but the difficulties of life made it so she was only able to explore writing later in life. In her eighties, she took a writing course at the YMCA and wrote a book that her daughter Renee later published. The book contained a collection of stories from her life, spanning 1903 to 2000. Muriel was a Jewish woman who attended a “mixed” school in Brooklyn, New York before moving to Newark, New Jersey and encountering the Jewish mob. She lived through numerous wars while facing the troubles of growing up, parenthood, grandparenthood, a changing culture and the loss of her husband.

The first song takes place when Muriel was ten years old and living with her religiously Jewish grandmother for the summer – a stark contrast from the secular life she led at home. The song starts with a tutti, an energetic mix of all of the instruments playing together, before evolving into something more folk-like. The mezzo-soprano, Harms, had a youthful excitement present in her voice as she dramatically told the story of Muriel keeping her Yiddish-speaking grandmother company after her grandfather died. The contrast between Harms’ operatic voice and the lines “My father was a Tammany Hall Democrat/ And above all, worshiped/ The Brooklyn Dodgers” was highly comedic and evoked a child-like naivety.  

The second song, “1916,” centers on an anecdote recalling Muriel wishing to have piano lessons like other girls around her. The piano-centric song references Irving Berlin’s 1916 hit “I Love a Piano,” starting the pattern of song references that continues throughout the program. In the pre-concert talk, Chasalow explained that he took references from Bach, Purcell, Gershwin, the Beatles and disco. He formed these pieces into a coherent whole that refracted the pieces through his own lens. The next section, “1919,” embodied the feeling of being Jewish in a mixed neighborhood where she “cringed so when they sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’” in her grammar school but would “always join in on ‘America the Beautiful.’” 

A time skip of 15 years occurs, and Muriel marries Sam Chasalow and moves to Newark, New Jersey in “1934.” There’s a sense of wonder present in the bouncy composition as Muriel details elements of their new life. The song opens anecdotally with  “The mother across the hall in Newark earned her living as a prostitute, but we felt it didn’t really affect us in any way.” Chasalow writes that the composition starts “angular and strange” as they adjust to adult life but becomes “more settled and conjunct” near the end. This song marks the transition to the darker parts of Muriel’s life as war approaches.

“1938” has Sam Chasalow confront Nazi sympathizers with the backing of a group of local Jewish men, some of whom may have been in the mob. The song evokes Muriel’s loneliness and sense of betrayal from Sam’s actions as she is left to care for their children alone, not knowing whether or not he is safe. “1942” is the darkest song in the series. Both the words and the instrumentals elicit a sense of loss as Harms sings, “We suffered the shortages/ We learned first aid/ We suffered the fear of air raids/ We lowered the shades.” During the war, Muriel took on the role of neighborhood air raid warden, and Sam quit his job to support the war effort. They “suffered the fear” and “suffered the loss of loved ones.” The song ends with a metaphor of sweeping “sand off of the summer carpet,” indicating the end of the war but having remaining memories of it stuck in your mind. “1942” ends with “But we would never/ Ever be the same again.”

Muriel and Sam moved to West Orange, New Jersey, in “1959” and founded Greater General Motors Company truck sales in Newark. Afte the company was bankrolled by the mob, Sam was forced out of the job. This song recounts when a notorious mob boss and associate of the Chasalows, Longie Zwillman, was found hanged. Despite the somber theme, the performance was purposefully overdramatic and ended with a funny note when the couple “were invited to [their] daughter’s wedding to a millionaire…We declined.” This made for a good transition to the next performance, “1960,” which provided a break from the darker themes in the form of Muriel’s vacation on a Caribbean cruise. There’s a clear Latin jazz groove supported by the addition of bongos as she describes “The islands/ The cocktail parties/ The cigars/ The casinos.” The story takes somewhat of a twist as they become stranded at sea, and Harms sings “on and on and on” again and again, while supported by the standing bass, adding a darker sound to the otherwise lighthearted tune. The music swells as all of the instruments come together and build in response to Muriel’s panic. 

“1967” is when Muriel first starts to feel the effects of aging. The lyrics recount Muriel entering Chasalow’s room when he was playing “When I’m Sixty-Four” by The Beatles. She asks, “What is that they are singing about? Who’s getting older? I’m sixty-four, and I don’t feel older.” The accompaniment supports her joking tone at first, but in the transition to the next song, the electric guitar, and percussion lead intensely, hinting that while she may have been joking around, she did feel intense underlying feelings about aging. 

The Vietnam War was the background for “1970’’ as the TV would play morbid statistics during meal times. They were “always finishing [their meals] with an ever more difficult to swallow body count.” Harms has Muriel sounding jaded and bitter at the return of another war after having lived through WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Cold War. By the end of it, Harms sounds out of breath, emulating Muriel’s exhaustion from the violence. “1980” starts energetically with a drum kit and a disco vibe as “Lois,” the attractive suburban wife of a dentist, is described. The sound is dramatically reduced to just the bass and drums as Harms sings, “But cocaine/ Changes everything.” There is then an explosion of sound and a fade-out, making me unable to hear the last line in the song: “Life is just like that.”

The final song, “1985,” is a reflection of Muriel’s life after her husband Sam passes away and her children move out: “Suddenly I am alone.” This is the slowest song in the program, primarily featuring the cello, viola and violin. Muriel finds satisfaction in being able to reset clocks and mending sweaters for others. The concert ends with a feeling of accomplishment with a sense of underlying sadness. 

Overall, the operatic narrative tone which lent itself to the comedic aspects very well, was something to get used to in the more serious moments. The orchestral composition was gorgeous and the selected years of Muriel’s life were well-chosen and a good reflection of the Jewish woman’s life through the 20th century. Be sure to check out the other events held this semester by the Women’s Studies Research Center and the Brandeis Concert Series.