Music of Remembrance: “Unconquered!”

By: Peter A. Klein

In addition to their two mainstage concerts each year at Benaroya Hall, Music of Remembrance also does a series of four free outreach concerts each year. The programs are typically drawn from past performances at Benaroya, performed for the community in a less formal setting.

I took in one of these concerts this afternoon, in the sun-drenched Italianate performance space at Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. If you missed it, the same program can be heard tomorrow evening, Sunday, December 6, 2009, at The Congregational Church on Mercer Island, 4545 Island Crest Way, at 7:00 PM. Donations will be accepted at the door, and the performance space will be transformed into a cabaret, with refreshments served.

The concert, dubbed “Unconquered!,” had two decidedly different parts. In the first half were string chamber works by Gideon Klein and Erwin Schulhoff. Both composers’ music and reputations were almost obliterated in the Holocaust, and both died in Nazi concentration camps. Interest in their music has increased in recent years.

Both works feature often spicy harmonies, aching counterpoint and motoric, dance-like rhythms with a Czech and Hungarian flavor. Klein’s Trio (1944) was completed at the Terezin transit camp, near Prague, just nine days before the composer was transported to Auschwitz. Schulhoff’s String Quartet No. 2 dates from 1925.

Both pieces were given energetic and spirited performances by some of MOR’s regular string players, who also happen to be some of the best chamber musicians in town: violinists Mikhail Schmidt and Leonid Keylin, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, and cellist Mara Finkelstein. It’s always a treat to hear these musicians play together. The sense of ensemble, of musical give-and-take was palpable. They seemed perfectly tuned to each other’s subtle changes in tempo, dynamics and articulation–what makes a truly satisfying performance rather than a routine one.

The second part of the program focused on cabaret music from Terezin. Though it might seem improbable now, the camp had a cabaret for the residents, which their captors not only permitted, but encouraged. After a suitable term of slave labor, a prisoner might obtain a ticket, and have a few hours’ respite hearing music performed by some of the finest Jewish talent from Europe.

New lyrics were written to current popular songs, with irony and sarcasm the order of the day. One of the translations rhymes the camp’s German name, “Theresienstadt” with “welcome mat.” The effect is eerie–one minute one hears sentiments of the “sunny skies and June moon” genre, and the next minute, it’s Cole Porter meets Franz Kafka.

The cabaret songs were engagingly performed by baritone Erich Parce and mezzo-soprano Jenny Knapp, with MOR Artistic Director Mina Miller at the piano. The singers ably conveyed both the songs’ frothy surface and their darker barbs. Miller was a sensitive accompanist, and seemed to have great fun with some of the flamboyant piano glissandi in introductions and transitional passages. The effect was not one of tragedy, but of the prisoners laughing at their tormentors–of their human spirit asserting itself despite everything.

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