By Paul Hyde
GREENVILLE, S.C. – The Greenville Symphony Orchestra’s Kristallnacht remembrance was the sort of concert that could give an audience member stylistic whiplash.
The Nov. 9 program at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts took the “something for everyone” motto to extremes, featuring both Arnold Schoenberg’s searing A Survivor from Warsaw and Jerry Bock’s often jaunty tunes from Fiddler on the Roof.
It ranged, in other words, from the horrific to the seemingly flippant. Did it work? Actually, yes. Under the direction of the orchestra’s longtime conductor Edvard Tchivzhel, the concert was by turns chilling and mournful but ultimately triumphant.
The program, named “From Ashes to Rebirth” and part of Greenville’s Year of Altruism, a local all-volunteer celebration of compassion and diversity, took the audience on a musical journey that began with Schoenberg’s evocation of the horrors of a concentration camp. The performance ended in a spirit of affirmation, however, with excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
The full orchestra concert certainly was a generous gesture on the part of the Greenville community and its symphony. The performance took place 75 years from the first day of Kristallnacht, the coordinated 1938 attacks on Jews in Nazi Germany that sent shock waves throughout the world. Kristallnacht, also known as “The Night of Broken Glass,” is viewed by many historians as the beginning of the Holocaust.
For Tchivzhel (pronounced CHIV-gel), the Russian-born conductor whose dissident grandfather was executed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, the concert held special meaning. Tchivzhel, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1991, has always been an outspoken advocate of human rights.
“The concert is more than a commemoration of Kristallnacht,” Tchivzhel told me in an interview before the performance. “It’s about tolerance, understanding, and peaceful coexistence.”
The program opened with Tchivzhel’s vivid, probing account of A Survivor from Warsaw, the short 1947 work for orchestra, narrator, and men’s chorus. The orchestra’s powerful performance of this prickly, often atonal, and rarelyheard work benefited greatly from the commanding, impassioned narration by Bruce Schoonmaker, a professor of music and opera at nearby Furman University. The Men of the Furman Singers, deftly prepared by the ensemble’s director, Hugh Ferguson Floyd, sang the choral section with polish and assurance.
The orchestra turned next to John Williams’ wistful main theme from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. Greenville Symphony concertmaster Xiaoqing Yu produced a soaring, mellifluous tone in his beautifully phrased reading of the solo violin part.
Williams’ plaintive theme served as an intermezzo and bridge to the Fiddler on the Roof medley, delivered by Tchivzhel and the orchestra with bumptious gusto.
The music from the 1964 Fiddler fit well with the evening’s theme. The show, after all, is about surviving through faith, humor, love of family, and tenacious hope. As Tevye, the central character, exclaims: “To life, L’chaim!” The show’s irrepressible melodies are among the most familiar in musical theater. Trumpet player Jens C. Larsen offered an appropriately languid solo on “If I Were a Rich Man.” Tchivzhel drew a rich, lustrous sound from the strings in “Sunrise, Sunset.”
The three excerpts from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that concluded the program will be most remembered for Tchivzhel’s radiant, elegantly shaped account of the work’s poignant fourth movement for strings and harp. The stirring fifth movement finale finished the concert in joyous style.
All in all, it was an affecting performance that traced humankind at its worst and, perhaps, at its best.
The Greenville Symphony Orchestra’s season continues with “Mozart the Magnificent” on Nov. 22-24. For details, click here.
Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville (S.C.) News and Southeast Editor for Classical Voice North America. Readers may follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.