“Cantata for the Children of Terezìn” by Mary Ann Joyce-Walter
Ravello Records, $16.99 CD. 50 minutes.
Reminiscent of Mahler and Brahms, with a generous dash of shtetl melancholy, this cantata sets seven poems composed by children in the Terezìn concentration camp. The recording was made in 2007 in Ukraine, by the Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra and King Singers of Kiev; the conductor was the late American composer (“Taliban Dances”) Robert Ian Winstin.
Some years back, Seattle’s Music of Remembrance commissioned a new work by another American composer, Lori Laitman, based on some of these same poems, titled, like the publication that brought them to light, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” Terezìn, near Prague, was unique among Nazi transit camps: A place full of artistic talents, some of whom were encouraged, and most of whom were, eventually, sent to their deaths.
Composer Mary Ann Joyce-Walter, longtime music faculty at Manhattanville College in New York, places seven of these little poems within a sweeping orchestral effort, with mixed success. She quotes a gentle phrase from “The Moldau,” though not the one “Hatikvah” is based on, opening (and closing) the work with the calm of that famous Bohemian river, but she soon gets into much darker stuff. Chugging basses and march-like cadences mark the unmistakable awareness of the young poets’ fates. The Russian chorus provides stately support. A heartfelt instrumental interlude features clarinet and balalaika (mandolin?), and tender strings.
The expressive voice of a childlike soprano serves the solos well. In one movement, an American-accented child speaker’s voice declaims the poignant “The Little Mouse” with just the right tone; Joyce-Walter’s percussive, haunting accompaniment matches perfectly.
But who is this talented child? No credit given. The soprano (Oxnaya Oleskaya) is not named in the CD booklet, only onscreen for the listener taking advantage of the “enhanced CD.” Not sure why my computer didn’t see the full scores and extended liner notes that the cover notes promised.
The poems are in English (whose translations?), which is not such a comfortable fit for the singers (the soprano sings “De Roiz” in Franta Bass’s “The Rose”). Musically, this is a fine performance of a work that breaks no new compositional ground, but expresses grief and hope with minimal horror. An additional tone poem, “Aceldama,” by the same composer, covers the same terrain.
The terrible place of horror that was Terezìn continues to provide artists with inspiration. Other writings by children in Terezìn found their way into Laitman’s “Vedem,” another MOR commission. The “Vedem” film, “The Boys of Terezìn,” is out there in schools. Somewhere, there’s always a youth troupe rehearsing a play based on “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” And among the production credits that do get into the accompanying notes for Joyce-Walter’s Cantata, there’s one for the founder of a New York project called Children and Artists of Terezìn.
This very weekend, Viktor Ullmann’s Hitler-mocking opera “The Emperor of Atlantis,” composed but suppressed in Terezìn, is being performed onstage both in New York City and in Seattle, at Benaroya Hall for Music of Remembrance (www.musicofremembrance.org).
The murdered artists have done their part. Our contemporary artists, having heard them, are doing theirs. And that allows us all, even now, still to bear witness.