Chris Coogan is getting married.
Fairfield County’s favorite jazz and gospel composer/pianist/singer/ teacher/choir director/producer ties the knot in June with Marion Howard. She’s got her own artistic background.
But that’s not what this story is about.
As Chris was thinking about his impending step-fatherhood, Marion was reading to him from a recently discovered memoir. “U Bernátū” describes the lives of her Jewish ancestors from Osek, a tiny village in Bohemia (today it’s the Czech Republic).
Marion had discovered a link to that heritage through an English-language Radio Prague story. Her uncommon family name Wedeles was noted in the story as “Wels.” She realized the piece was about her own ancestors.
In a beautiful passage mixing heartbreak and joy, the narrator describes how his mother prepared luggage for her 2 children, before they emigrated to America in the late 1850s. She knew she would likely never see them again. Her 14-year-old son was leaving to be spared from enforced conscription, as happened to many Jewish peasants.
The mother stuffs baked goods into the luggage, then fills even tinier spaces with dried fruit. Her children’s journey will be long; she does what she can to help them make it, with food and love.
At the same time, Chris was writing a new composition. He chose B minor, because of the key’s mystical and meditative qualities. It ends in D major, signalizing the realization of hope for the next generation. Marion’s relatives’ losses — not everyone made it out of Bohemia alive — and triumphs live forever now, in Chris’ “B Minor Blessing.”
One stunning moment — the children are loaded onto an oxcart to carry them to the train bound for Bremen; the mother runs after them shouting prayers and blessings, following behind until it disappears from view — is reflected in the music.
Marion and Chris learned from the “U Bernátū” memoir that the ship was lost at sea for months. The passengers’ food was cut to 1/4 rations. Many became weak, and illness spread. But because of the mother’s loving foresight, the dried food kept her children fed and well.
The “B Minor Blessing” starts with one female solo voice — the mother — singing an Aaronic blessing in Hebrew. The choir then follows. The music swells to a piano solo by Chris; it represents the overseas journey.
The final verse is in English. It’s quiet and reflective — much like a prayer for the now-distant family, sung in the language of their new lives.
The Fairfield County Chorale presents the world premiere of “B Minor Blessing” this Saturday (March 9, 7:30 p.m., Norwalk Concert Hall). It’s part of the evening’s “journey through time and across the globe.” Chris will accompany the chorale on piano.
The other day, he shared his new piece’s back story with the Chorale. They connected on a personal level. Nearly everyone, Marion says, has a similar tale of brave immigrant ancestors who boarded boats, mules or planes — or arrived somewhere on foot.
Everyone does have a family story. As Chris Coogan and Marion Howard prepare to merge theirs, they’ve collaborated on a new story — told in music — for all of us to hear, think about, and appreciate.
(The Norwalk Concert Hall is at 125 East Avenue. Tickets to the March 9 Fairfield County Chorale performance are $30 in advance, $5 for students, and $35 at the venue. Click here to purchase, and for more information.)