MOR resurrects, recreates, and remembers

As a general rule, Music of Remembrance concerts leave me with mixed feelings.  We gather on these evenings to hear the works of composers silenced by the wretched events of the Holocaust, cut down by the Nazis in an attempt to erase their very existence from the pages of history.  With such an event weighed down and defined by one of the most despicable events of modern times, I’m left ultimately puzzled how I should respond as these musical works of Holocaust victims are played.  How can I applaud for Laszlo Weiner’s music when I know he was murdered in a labor camp?   How can I not clap? Weiner’s music has survived, despite the Third Reich’s best efforts.  These conflicting thoughts swirled around my head as I sat in the lobby of Benaroya Hall, sipping mint tea, reading an essay by Larry Rothe thirty minutes before Music of Remembrance’s fall concert.

Rothe’s essay, “The Sacred, the Profane, and the Gritty Affirmations of Music,” is part of a larger collection of essays about classical music.  Rothe spends much of his time commenting on composers who are both partiers and prodigies.  But, he pointedly ends the piece with one of the most convincing defenses for the relevance of classical music this cynic has ever read, and a message I found all too appropriate and timely for the upcoming MOR concert.

Rothe writes,

“When Mozart or Schubert, Berg or Berlioz are played, their sound patterns are recreated and part of their physical presence is resurrected.  This is what we mean when we say that music affirms life.”

If Rothe is right, what the Seattle Symphony does for the long-dead classical and romantic composers, MOR does for another class of artists: composers silenced by the Holocaust, and their contemporary comrades yearning to express a meaningful and honest message about a cruel and tragic period of human history.

One of the composers MOR has regularly partnered with is Paul Schoenfield.  Schoefield, a professor of composition at the University of Michigan, usually writes music by commission. His style draws from numerous sources – classical, cantoral, klezmer, jazz, and ragtime.   Two years ago, MOR premiered Ghetto Songs by Schoenfield.  This month, “Ghetto Songs” and his other MOR commission “Camp Songs,” will be released on the Naxos label.  When I talked with Schoenfield back then, he considered “Ghetto Songs” the third part of an unofficial trilogy the composer wrote remembering World War II and the Holocaust.  “Sparks of Glory” is the first piece in Schoenfield’s trilogy and it was this piece MOR featured at their fall concert.

“Sparks of Glory,” written for chamber ensemble (violin, clarinet, cello, piano, and narrator) sets to music stories from a collection (also titled Sparks of Glory) by Moshe Prager.  Over the course of the piece’s four movements, Schoenfield’s music opens Prager’s words to a new dimension.  During “My Name is Chaim,” the piece’s second movement, Mark Salman’s piano shimmered with innocence while darkly hued music from the other instruments questioned the narrator’s musings on a name and life.  Schoenfield is at his irreverent best in “A Bottle of Brandy.” He fits club, ragtime, and other styles into a wildly swinging movement, with klezmer music sprinkled in for good measure.  “Sparks of Glory” ends with a crooked but rousing testament to the power of resistance, even if it is by the small act of finding unexpected joy in forced song and dance.

Schoenfield’s piece followed Paavel Haas’s First String Quartet; “Cantillations,” a work by Ofer Ben-Amots; Sandor Vandor’s Air; and the fiery Duo for violin and viola by Laszlo Weiner.  I was struck by how most of these pieces gave the impression of wearied exhalation.  Laura DeLuca’s clarinet bubbled drearily in Cantillations; soft plucking ended Haas’s quartet; and Vandor’s lonely melodies drifted from Walter Gray’s cello.  Only the three fretful movements of Weiner’s Duo – furiously rendered by Mikhail Schmidt (violin) and Susan Gulkis Assadi (viola) – give the impression of something different.  Instead of rumination, Weiner seems to defiantly reject the tragedy about to envelope Europe and the Jewish people.

A Music of Remembrance concert is both uplifting and depressing.  Do I celebrate the performance of works by Haas, Vandor, and Weiner?  Or do I instead mourn the loss of compositions they were never able to write down before they died?  Rothe’s poignant words helped me finally reconcile these competing feelings, since with each concert, MOR resurrects, recreates, and remembers and ultimately affirms lives that were and life as it is today.

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