Music of Remembrance’s spring concert “In Defiance!” is a diverse musical offering of Holocaust-era and contemporary composition. MOR Artistic Director Mina Miller chose this eclectic program with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in mind.
As always, she says she is absolutely committed to broadening the definition of how an audience thinks about “Holocaust” music while paying tribute to the victims of the destruction.
When Miller culled the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., she was actively searching out cabaret music from the period. Cabaret is an important musical legacy dating from the years between the two world wars through the devastation that followed in the 1940s. Past experience had shown Miller that, besides being historically significant, cabaret music was also an accessible entry point for audiences approaching Holocaust art for the first time.
Holocaust Museum musicologist Bret Werb suggested Miller contact Kobi Luria, an Israeli musical theater arranger, who was doing an extraordinary reconstruction of lost cabaret songs composed and performed from 1941 to 1945. These songs were created in Terezin, the transit camp outside of Prague that was an intermediate stop for many on the way to death camps, including Auschwitz.
Miller describes an artistically rich life in Terezin that existed parallel to the hellish slave labor, starvation and disease-ridden conditions that permeated the camp.
“Something [artistic] was going on every hour of the day,” remarks Miller. Punctuating this lively, explosive creativity was the hard fact that, “in the end, all those people were sent off to transports.”
Luria was working with elderly survivors now living in Israel to recall and document songs that underscored the Terezin experience. These songs responded satirically and metaphorically to the dire situation of the inmates. None of the original music and few of the lyrics were intact, so Luria tapped the memories of those who could still recall this almost ancient past.
Two “schools” of cabaret in Terezin represented the primary populations in the camp: Czech and German. Luria worked specifically with the Czech material. Of the six Czech pieces to be performed by MOR on May 9, five are world premieres. They will be sung in English, in translations by Luria. Rounding out the cabaret program are German-composed numbers from Terezin that will also be sung in English.
“Great Jewish composers, artists, actors, scholars, rabbis and teachers, as well as many elderly Jews from Germany and Czechoslovakia, were imprisoned in Terezin before being sent on transports east where they were murdered,” explains Miller.
Karel Svenk, a Czech, was in the first transport to Terezin in 1941, and according to Miller, “This great artist, author and actor made his career there,” before perishing in 1945.
Svenk’s “The Last Food Ticket” (also known as “The Last Food Card”), a march composed in 1942 in a potato peeling room in the men’s barracks, “was so powerful, it was adopted as a kind of anthem among the inmates—a morale booster,” Miller said. According to Miller, Svenk was a prolific creator and became known as the “Charlie Chaplin of Terezin” for his looks, talents and leadership.
The German cabaret in Terezin was distinct from that created by Czech composers and lyricists.
“Both the German and Czech compositions were socially conscious and full of commentary on life in the camp, but the Czech music was created and performed by amateurs,” says Miller. The German cabaret came into itself from 1943-44 and was usually performed by professional musicians. Despite performance in abject conditions, Miller remarks that the German shows “were well-produced” affairs, distinctive because of the professionals who created them.
MOR has an active commissioning program, and the upcoming concert features a new work commission from composer Lori Laitman. Laitman chose to set poems by Abraham Sutzkever, the great Yiddishist, under the title The Seed of Dream. Miller sees the survivor Sutzkever “as a kind of romantic poet hero who witnessed the Jewish pilgrimage from annihilation to rebirth.”
MOR’s commissioning program receives a huge boost in May. An official Israeli remembrance at Yad Vashem for its 2005 Yom HaShoah events will feature Thomas Pasatieri’s Letter to Warsaw. MOR premiered this commissioned work in its May 2004 concert.
In Defiance will open with 14-year-old cellist Julian Schwarz playing “In Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust,” a prelude composed by his father Gerard Schwarz, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The younger Schwarz is the first recipient of the David Tonkonoqui Memorial Award, which includes a small monetary gift and the opportunity to be a featured performer during an MOR concert.
Tonkonoqui was a Seattle Symphony cellist, Russian ÈmigrÈ, and child of survivors who was involved with MOR from its inaugural concert in 1998. After his 2003 death at the age of 45, MOR wanted to acknowledge his significant support of the organization and its work.
Julian Schwarz initiated his cello study with Tonkonoqui and the two continued as teacher and pupil for more than seven years. “I think this composition is a very personal way for Maestro Schwarz to make a tribute to David and his son and the special relationship the two of them had,” says Miller.