In early November, communities around the country and the world will observe the sixty-sixth anniversary of Kristallnacht, but only the Seattle observance will be marked by a concert. Since 1998, Music of Remembrance has been committed to the preservation and performance of Holocaust music and to the commissioning of new material that reflects upon the experiences of the Shoah and the artistic voices that were lost during that tragic time.
To inaugurate its 2004-05 season, MOR will revive Paul Schoenfield’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated composition "Camp Songs." MOR’s founding Artistic Director Mina Miller commissioned and premiered "Camp Songs" in 2001. Schoenfield’s contemporary composition was inspired by the poetry of Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a Polish political dissident imprisoned for years at Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp outside of Berlin. "Camp Songs" now features a new English translation of Kulisiewicz’s poetry by Katarzyna Jerzak.
Miller first encountered Kulisiewicz’s work at the United States Holocaust Museum on one of her annual visits to the Washington D.C. archives. Consistent with Miller’s vision that MOR devote itself to all artists persecuted during the Holocaust, not just Jewish ones, Kulisiewicz was of note for his Herculean role as a post-war archivist. Upon his liberation, Kulisiewicz dictated from memory 716 pages of text and song that were sung or spoken in Sachsenhausen. "Camp Songs" draws upon Kulisiewicz’ own poetry, and Miller observes, "I was touched by the emotional, sensitive, sad poems while Schoenfield was attracted to the raw, sarcastic, really rough, hellish ones. Schoenfield remarked that if he were to compose something to confront God about the Holocaust, he would do it in the style of Mel Brooks’ The Producers.’ When you consider this, you understand his attraction to these particular poems."
Kulisiewicz’s bitter irony is apparent throughout the five poems Schoenfield works with, but it is perhaps best encapsulated in the title of one: "The Corpse-Carriers’ Tango."
Kulisiewicz has been called "the finger from hell" for his stark, unfettered descriptions of day-to-day life and death at Sachsenhausen. Schoenfield’s music meets Kulisiewicz’s lyrics head-on, but not always in a classical, art idiom.
"Paul’s work blends lots of musical styles," remarks Miller. "It’s very, very accessible. In several places, Kulisiewicz included melodies with his work, and in two instances, Paul has incorporated those folk melodies into the piece."
An Orthodox Jew who maintains residences in the United States and Israel, Schoenfield is noted for his ability to weave together many musical styles within a single composition. Schoenfield’s musical interests include American folk and vernacular traditions, and he is likewise influenced by popular traditions from abroad. Despite his vast knowledge, Schoenfield has a decidedly self-deprecating side. As Miller remembers, Schoenfield described his work on "Camp Songs" as "just setting some folk tunes."
In its short history, MOR has developed an impressive commissioning program that includes composers David Stock, Lori Laitman, and Thomas Pasatieri alongside Schoenfield. Miller is clear and concise when defining her commitment to new work and its relationship to the historic past.
"The words breathe anew each time someone puts his or her voice to them. Our mission at MOR is to ensure that these voices of musical witness are heard, and to be heard often requires a voice of this century. We must have a means of communicating that can reach an audience today," she says.
Miller admits that there is an inherent challenge in attracting an audience to experience the themes that her company explores, but her drive to do just that is writ large in conversation with her.
"I’ve encountered all kinds of responses from within the Jewish community," she says, "including, We need to move on. We don’t want to look backward. We want to look forward. Let’s just move on.’"
Miller counters this attitude, describing MOR performances as, "Uplifting. This music was a means to survival, and the repertoire is one of moral resistance and courage. The audience experiences the incredible degree of defiance and life in this work. It is music we urgently need to learn from."
MOR is a grassroots, non-profit organization, driven by the hard work and devotion of its volunteer board of directors and the quality of affiliated musicians like Gerard Schwarz and others from the Seattle Symphony. Its beginnings stem from a gathering on the patio of Miller’s first home here "with the only five people I knew in Seattle."
Miller’s vision sprung from her personal connection to the Holocaust. Her parents were the lone members of their families to escape Lithuania for the United States before the Shoah. Like so many others, upon their return to Lithuania, Miller’s parents found that the Nazis had murdered all their loved ones.
The resulting legacy for Miller was "gaps in my past. People talk about their families, and I don’t know what in the world they are talking about. I never had a family except my parents and sister. I didn’t know what aunts, uncles and cousins once removed were. I learned the parts of the family by dictionary."
Until just this year, MOR has paid only its composers and performers, with Miller volunteering all of her time. She has recently hired a part-time administrator, but is undaunted by the economic challenges of her endeavor. Under the auspices of MOR’s Educational Outreach program, Miller also contributes her time at Shorecrest High School in Shoreline and Garfield High School in Seattle.
In the fall of 2002, MOR launched the first in a planned series of recordings. This series serves as documentation and memorial, as well as a funding source for future work. Most significantly, the recordings amplify the music and the message, making it accessible to a larger and more diverse audience than is possible in concert form.
"Art from Ashes, Volume I" was nominated for a 2003 Grammy Award and includes a representative mix of MOR’s comprehensive view of Holocaust music. The disc includes rediscovered compositions from the war years as well as the world premiere recordings of "Camp Songs" and David Stock’s "A Vanished World." MOR’s sophomore effort, Thomas Pasatieri’s "Letter to Warsaw," was released earlier this year.