By Philippa Kiraly
Mina Miller used these words when introducing the latest Music of Remembrance concert Monday night. Miller is artistic director of the concert series which she began thirteen years ago, and every concert has been one which leaves the listener with much to ponder after.
Monday’s performance at Nordstrom Recital Hall was no exception. Part of the concert focused on the boys in the concentration camp Terezin and the poetry they wrote; part was a memory of the ancient settlement of Jews in Thessalonika, of whom there were 54,000 at the beginning of the war, and after the nazis’ systematic massacre, about 1100 at the end, two percent.
As usual, there was music by a composer who died in the camps, in this case the String Quartet No. 2, “From the Monkey Mountains,” by Pavel Haas, and music of today’s composers in memoriam.
The bucolic and peaceful movement names of Haas’s quartet aren’t born out by the music. There is much that feels aggressive in the 35 minute work, somewhat bewildering for a movement titled “The Moon and I,” for instance, but “Cart, Driver and Horse” can be amusingly descriptive with slurps and whines indicating wheels that need oiling and the choppy clops of horse hooves. The first two movements feel too long for their content which seems repetitious. The quartet was ably played by violinists Mikhail Shmidt and Elisa Barston, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, cellist Walter Gray, and in the last movement, percussionist Matthew Kocmieroski.
There were 100 boys between about 13 and 15 years of age in Building 417, Home 1 at Terezin, who remarkably organized themselves into a cohesive group which supported each other, helped by an adult teacher. Over two years, led by one Peter Ginz, they wrote a secret magazine called “Vedem” (“In the Lead”) and every Friday read to each other the poems they had written. Somehow, they wrote 800 pages of this magazine, and equally remarkably the one lone boy left in Home 1 at the end of two years, Sidney Taussig, was able to bury the papers in a metal box with the help of his father, the camp’s blacksmith.
Taussig came to Monday’s concert, one of only 15 of those boys alive at the end of W W II , and six now, to describe some of this for us.
Composer Lori Laitman wrote an oratorio titled “Vedem” on commission from Music of Remembrance, which premiered it last year, and she extracted from it a song cycle of six poems, also called “Vedem,” which premiered Monday night with mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh and tenor Ross Hauck, accompained by clarinetist Laura DeLuca and pianist Miller.
The poems are terrible in their beauty and the insight of teenaged boys faced with such horror. (Taussig described how, at 13 and because he was used to horses, his job was to drive the bodies to the crematorium.) Laitman’s use of clarinet is just the right foil for the voices, and her accompaniments are always subservient to the voice line. The poems are nostalgic, somber, urgent, one portraying the bitter chill, another light relief, all of which is there in Laitman’s music. Niederloh’s heavy, fast vibrato made it hard to hear harmonies here and she tended to sing too forcefully much of the time. The music was more suited to Hauck’s voice.
Betty Olivero is another composer familiar to Music or Remembrance devotees. MoR commissioned another vocal work from the Israeli composer, this time a setting of one poem, written by a Sephardic Jew from Thessalonika on his way to Auschwitz, which he survived, and it received its premiere Monday. “Kolo’t” a rich and moving work, full of melody, mirrors that painful experience but has hope for salvation. This suited Niederloh’s voice far better than did the Laitman work and she did it justice, accompanied by DeLuca, Shmidt, Assadi, Gray, and Kocmieroski, plus Valerie Muzzolini Gordon, whose harp added another valuable dimension.
The concert ended with a lighter work, also by Olivero, from a concert adaptation of the music from her score written to accompany the 1920 silent film, ‘The Golem.”
Titled “Der Golem: Zeks Yiddishe Lider un Tantz,” the six dance movements are a superb vehicle for the clarinet to let rip. DeLuca, a deeply expressive and talented artist who played three different instruments, shone as she led the music in dances slow and quiet, raucous and energetic, embroidered and nostalgic. She was ably abetted by Shmidt, violinist Leonid Keylin, Assadi, and cellist Mara Finklestein.
As the non-Jew widow of a first generation American Jew whose entire family in Europe disappeared into the camps, I find these concerts compelling, enlightening and important, lest we forget.