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The Daily News-Tribune (December 2, 2005)

An aesthetic journey through history

by Carrie Simmons

WALTHAM -- Fourth-graders traveled through history yesterday to experience United States immigration through music during a private concert at Brandeis University.

The performance was sponsored by MusicUnitesUS, a program at Brandeis that connects social studies lessons and social justice issues with music for Waltham students.

Judy Eissenberg, founder of MusicUnitesUS and a violinist in the Lydian String Quartet, designed the "Immigration in the United States" program to help foster an appreciation of the immigrant experience and the courage it takes to leave one's homeland.

Before their visit to Brandeis, students were asked to imagine what it would be like to move to a new country that had a different language and culture and make decisions about what they would chose to bring with them if they could only carry a single suitcase.

"It puts them all in the same place in a way," Eissenberg said. "What if you were stripped down to a few things? What is your essence?"

The Lydian String Quartet, artists-in-residence at Brandeis University for the last 25 years, performed a wide range of music from Native American sounds and hymns influenced by the music brought by pilgrims to a medley of Jewish folk dance songs and Beethoven's "Dance a la Tedesca."

While many immigrants were pushed from their homelands, fleeing political and religious persecution, some were pulled to America by economic opportunities, Eissenberg told students.

"Some just wanted to come for adventure or thought they could start a new business," she said. "They all brought something from their homeland with them like the music we listen to today."

The musicians used a piece by Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng to talk to students about Chinese immigrants who came to America in the 1800s to build the railroad. Chinese immigrants entered the country through Angel Island, the west coast's Ellis Island, Eissenberg told students.

Before a piece by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, cellist Joshua Gordon told students about how poets, musicians and others used their art forms in the 20th century to speak out against injustices committed under totalitarian leaders like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini and to convey the suffering of people.

Violinist Daniel Stepner told students about a wave of Irish immigrants who came to America in the 1860s because of religious persecution, high taxation and the potato famine.

"A lot of those people were very poor and came here with nothing except their hands to work and their memories," Stepner said before the group performed a rendition of "Danny Boy."

"Some of them were so peaceful that they almost made me sleepy," said Sylvie Miller, a fourth grader at Whittemore Elementary School whose ancestors come from Hungary, France and Turkey.

Frances Ferranti, a fourth-grade teacher at Northeast Elementary School, said the performances were a wonderful way to engage students while the classroom activities forced them to think about how hard it might be to leave their homes with only clothes and come to a new school without even knowing how to ask where the bathroom is.

"They might not necessarily be able to think yet about what immigrants did when they came to this country but they did get a feeling what they would do," she said. "They really are thinking."

Ferranti's class has welcomed two new students this year from other countries. Her classroom has children from Mongolia, Guatemala, Haiti, Puerto Rico and India.

MusicUnitesUS will bring about 1,000 Waltham students to Brandeis this year. In October, eighth-graders studying world history were invited to performances by the Yuval Ron Ensemble, a group of Israeli, Arab, Armenian and American artists.

In conjunction with their Latin American studies, Waltham High School freshmen in February will be invited to performances by Sol y Canto, a group of Latin musicians based in Cambridge.

CSK MCC