A large, open synagogue interior with a stained glass triangular chandelier.
Photo: Michael Vahrenwald

Song and Art at a Synagogue Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

By Aileen Kwun
November 30, 2019
2 minute read

“It’s often the case that curators invite artists to make projects; this time, the artist invited the curator,” says Cole Akers, curator and special projects manager at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, who has organized an installation of artist David Hartt’s work at another site of cultural and historical significance: the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. On view through Dec. 19, “The Histories (Le Mancenillier)” references a 19th-century piano composition written by the American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and the sweet-but-poisonous tropical plant he named it after. Born in New Orleans to a Jewish father and a Creole mother, Gottschalk was “the first to synthesize the classical tradition with African American and Afro-Caribbean song,” Akers says, “anticipating jazz and ragtime by more than fifty years.”

Exploring the histories of Jewish and black diasporas in the U.S., Hartt has invited Ethopian pianist Girma Yifrashewa to create a contemporary interpretation of Gottschalk’s piece for the exhibition, as well as Haitian baritone Jean Bernard Cerin to perform live Jewish, Caribbean, and African-American compositions. Images, video, and elements of sculpture, such as tropical plants and orchids placed to capture leaking rainwater throughout the building, complement the sound pieces, which are broadcast using an elaborate brass-plated microphone designed by Hartt. A dialogue between cultures, histories, and geographies told through song, the installation is a dynamic rumination on time, memory, and place. Catch the last live musical activation of the exhibition’s run next Saturday, Dec. 8.