Shai Wosner: Variations on a Theme by FDR


"...remember, remember always, that all of us... are descendants of immigrants and revolutionists." This Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote from a 1938 speech was the trigger for pianist Shai Wosner's commissioning project with composers Derek Bermel, Vijay Iyer, Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu, and John Harbison. Wosner's humanistic approach to curation shines through in his expressive playing in these works that engage with one of the most divisive issues of our time, and hearkens back to a leader whose legacy is profoundly enduring.

All proceeds from this recording will be donated to Team TLC NYC - a volunteer organization supporting asylum seekers and immigrants.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 31:18
01Pequenas Memórias (Small Memories)
Pequenas Memórias (Small Memories)
02Bitter Seas
Bitter Seas
05Plinth (for Kwame Ture)
Plinth (for Kwame Ture)

“...remember, remember always, that all of us... are descendants of immigrants and revolutionists.” This poignant Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote was the prompt Shai Wosner supplied Derek Bermel, Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu, John Harbison, and Vijay Iyer for this commissioning project on behalf of The People’s Symphony Concerts, the fruits of which are heard on this EP release. In our fractured era, where issues around immigration and identity are intensified by partisan battles, five composers sidestep the heated rhetoric, contributing instead moments of thoughtful sonic contemplation on the nature of the immigrant experience in a nation whose history is inextricably tied to the paradigm of immigration.

The collection opens with Derek Bermel’s Pequenas Memórias (“Small memories” in Portuguese), a work dedicated to his wife Andreia Pinto Correia’s immigrant experience as well as a reference to the great writer José Saramago’s memoir. Evoking his wife’s artistic trajectory and how living in her adopted country shaped her path, Bermel weaves in stylistic references to Bach, Chopin, Ellington, and the Beatles. An accumulating melodic figure in the right hand is embellished by jazz-inflected grace notes over a chromatic descending bass. The immigrant’s identity, represented by the core melodic idea, is subjected to the vicissitudes of this often chaotic country of ours, at times open to those born elsewhere and at others relentlessly inhospitable.

Anthony Cheung’s Bitter Seas is an homage to South Korean born San Francisco raised artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha whose life was taken tragically ay the age of 31 in 1982. Inspired by the multiple layers of interwoven meaning and creative fragmentation techniques in Cha’s work, Cheung’s piece is taut with internal conflict and dialogue. Sharp accented chords trigger scalar flourishes and insistent cascading dyads are framed by shimmering chordal sonorities. The abstraction at the surface of Cheung’s piece seems to capture the sometimes disjointed nature of immigrant experience, a splitting of the psyche into different zones of affiliation.

John Harbison’s Passage is inspired by the life story of the iconic songwriter Vernon Duke, neé Vladimir Dukelsky. Encouraged by Gershwin to change his name, Dukelsky embraced the world of American popular song and found considerable success. Harbison’s work traces this transformation, at times evoking a curiosity about the materials of the jazz age and Tin Pan Alley, before quoting one of Vernon Duke’s most famous songs “I Can’t Get Started,” and closing with music more overtly shaped by the jazz piano tradition.

Wang Lu chooses Chinese American architect I.M. Pei as the inspiration for her work Lacuna, focusing on the balance within his work between tradition and abstraction. Sharp articulated chords activate the piano as a resonating body and force the listener to consider its physical architecture. Shimmering figures then slide in to occupy the space of its frame. A poised approach to breath and silence within phrases gives the work a three dimensional, spatial aspect.

Vijay Iyer’s Plinth (for Kwame Ture) is dedicated to the life and activism of Ture, born Stokely Carmichael in Trinidad. The piece opens with an insistent series of alternating chords between the right and left hand which sets up its motoric regularity. Fleet scalar passages, elegiac octaves over a flowing bass ostinato, and a percolating groove in 13/8 follow before the work ends with towering chords, played heroically by Wosner, who is the ideal advocate throughout for the many moods through which these works pass. Iyer final passage is a fitting close to this celebration of the immigrant experience in the United States, resolute and steadfast in the pursuit of a meaningful life away from one’s native home.

- Dan Lippel

Recorded at Oktaven Audio, October 2021

Recording engineer: Ryan Streber

Cover image: Shai Wosner

Design & layout: Marc Wolf,

Commissioned by Peoples' Symphony Concerts, with support from The Adele and John Gray Fund, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Ed and Norma Dworetzky, Richard Replin and Elissa Stein

Additional support: Ellen and Bob Bildersee & Shirley Ariker

All proceeds from this recording will be donated to Team TLC NYC - a volunteer organization supporting asylum seekers and immigrants.

Shai Wosner

Pianist Shai Wosner has attracted international recognition for his exceptional artistry, musical integrity, and creative insight. His performances of a broad range of repertoire—from Beethoven and Schubert to Ligeti and the music of today—reflect a degree of virtuosity and intellectual curiosity that has made him a favorite among audiences and critics, who note his “keen musical mind and deep musical soul” (NPR’s All Things Considered). In addition to his work as a solo recitalist and chamber musician, he has performed with major orchestras across the U.S., including the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies, Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras, and Los Angeles Philharmonic, and has performed abroad with the Staatskapelle Berlin, Vienna Philharmonic, and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, among many other ensembles. His recordings range from Schubert sonatas—continuing his career-long, critically acclaimed engagement with the composer’s music—to chamber works by Bartók and Kurtág, to concerti by Haydn and Ligeti. He is a recipient of Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. He is Resident Artist of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in New York and is on the piano faculty at the Juilliard School and Bard College Conservatory of Music. Born in Israel, Wosner enjoyed a broad musical education from a very early age, studying piano with Opher Brayer and Emanuel Krasovsky, as well as composition, theory, and improvisation with André Hajdu. He later studied with Emanuel Ax at the Juilliard School.



San Francisco Classical Voice

For his latest recording, Variations on a Theme by FDR (New Focus Recordings), Israeli-born, New York-based pianist Shai Wosner took as his springboard a quotation from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1938 address to the Daughters of the American Revolution. In that short speech, which FDR gave a year before the DAR prohibited contralto Marian Anderson from performing in Constitution Hall, he said, “Remember, remember always, that all of us … are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

While FDR’s statement, on face value, is incorrect — Black Americans almost exclusively arrived in America as slaves rather than immigrants and were treated very differently from white immigrants and revolutionists — the quote reflects the good intentions of a president who would then turn his back on the DAR and, with his wife Eleanor, arrange Anderson’s historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The statement also motivated Wosner to invite five contemporary American composers — Derek Bermel, Anthony Cheung, John Harbison, Vijay Iyer, and Wang Lu — to write variations on FDR’s theme. (In recital, Wosner pairs these variations with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.)

A joint commission of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in New York City, where Wosner is the 2020–2024 artist-in-residence, and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the five Variations on a Theme by FDR together run a little over 31 minutes. While that may seem short shrift for a very well-recorded CD, all proceeds from the sale will be donated to Team TLC NYC, a volunteer organization supporting asylum seekers and immigrants.

Each composer took inspiration from the story of an immigrant of his or her choice. If I begin with the last and longest work, Vijay Iyer’s “Plinth (for Kwame Ture),” it is because I have a strong relationship with the words and deeds of the Trinidad-born Ture, aka Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998). Ture, who participated in one of the early Freedom Rides and later served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, articulated the notion of Black Power as “a call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” Carmichael’s call came less than a year after I spent most of the summer of 1965 as a voter registration volunteer in Williamston, North Carolina, with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Even before the program had ended, this white grandson of Russian-Jewish immigrants came to the realization that I had the potential inadvertently to do more harm than good.

Iyer’s work begins with dark and insistent churning. To my mind, it speaks of Ture’s resolve to stick to his message and engage wholeheartedly in the struggle for freedom. As long-lined arpeggios run up the keyboard, I imagine him stretching his wings and expanding his reach. The struggle itself is portrayed with jazz-like aplomb.

The New York-born Bermel intended his “Pequenas Memórias” (Small memories) as a tribute to the journey of his Lisbon-born wife, Andreia Pinto Correia. It is also the title of Portuguese writer José Saramago’s memoir. It’s the most lyrical piece in the Variations, with a lovely childlike quality that’s quite fetching. To Bermel, the music describes the challenges of an immigrant who overcame a traumatic accident to experience creative rebirth as a composer.

“Bitter Seas” by the San Francisco-born Cheung is equally quixotic and compelling. It is a short homage to South Korean-born, San Francisco-raised artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982), whose work explored “themes of cultural memory, trauma, and erasure.” The title refers to a work Cha created in 1976, in which an American flag is stamped with the French word amer, which translates as “bitter” or (as à mer) “to the sea.” Cheung’s music seems to describe a struggle in which an immigrant can never fully establish herself or gain a solid footing. It ends without resolution.

The New Jersey-born Harbison, one of several composers in the collection with a connection to Harvard, wrote his “Passage” to describe the transformation of Russian immigrant Vladimir Dukelsky (1903–1969) to composer Vernon Duke, a well-known contributor to the Great American Songbook. Harbison’s interest in Duke stems from the summer of 2004, when he stayed in the home of Duke’s widow. At times, one can sense a bit of swing, a touch of Duke’s music, or a smattering of café-like atmosphere. It’s an intriguing piece, excellently recorded, that further recommends Wosner’s creative album.

— Jason Victor Serinus, 2.24.2023

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