By Philippa Kiraly
SEATTLE – It’s been 16 seasons since Mina Miller began to present a series in Seattle: two chamber music concerts per season, one marking the memory of Kristallnacht in the fall, one near Holocaust Remembrance Day in the spring. For the past nine years, she has added a couple of free concerts to the mix under the rubric of “Sparks of Glory,” repeating some of the works previously performed.
These concerts – including a program April 19 at the Seattle Art Museum featuring music of Lori Laitman, Jake Heggie, Gideon Klein, and David Beigelman, are like no others. Miller is a woman of passion, vision, and conviction who is determined that the power of art can help people never to forget the appalling inhumanity, wholesale degradation, and slaughter of six million guiltless people that characterized Hitler’s Holocaust. Performance quality occasionally varies, but the content is indelible and given context by Miller’s eloquent introductions.
MoR concerts include music written by Holocaust victims and the occasional survivor as well as works by composers since then on Holocaust themes, often with poetry or words by those in the camps that were smuggled out, or buried and retrieved postwar. Every concert is an education and usually leaves the listener enlightened and disturbed, but the programs are not only about what happened to Jews. They also document, through their voices, Hitler’s policies towards gypsies, political dissidents, gays, and others. Many great and emerging artists disappeared, often via the Nazi show camp Terezín in the Czech Republic, and Miller has researched and sought out surviving manuscripts to bring to performance.
In the wrong hands these programs could be thought of as necessary medicine, but in Miller’s the concertgoer hears commissioned world premieres by such composers as Heggie, Laitman, David Stock, and Betty Olivero, rediscovered composers such as Erwin Schulhoff, chamber theater works, and more. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer (who wrote the opera Moby Dick) made it clear in an interview in 2012, before one of those commissioned premieres, that there is little they wouldn’t do for Miller if she asked them. Heggie explained: “I’m particularly inspired by stories of social justice and the inequities of life, and how we are all connected as human beings despite those inequities.”
One victim of the Holocaust was Klein, a 21-year-old composer and pianist, who was deported to Terezín, interrupting work on his Duo for Violin and Cello. (He died in Fürstengrube concentration camp in 1945.) With harmonies avant-garde for the day, the first movement and abruptly curtailed snatch of a second movement are like an energetic discussion between two friends of diverging views, both talking at once, each returning to the theme of argument but only occasionally listening to each other’s ideas. Violinist Mikhail Shmidt and cellist Walter Gray – excellent players and colleagues in the Seattle Symphony – had just the right approach.
For the April 19 concert, only Klein’s piece and Beigelman’s Dybbuk Dances were purely instrumental. Beigelman composed the Dances in the Łódź ghetto in 1941, originally for solo violin, later with added clarinet. Shmidt’s violin created shimmering melody while clarinetist Laura DeLuca, also a Seattle Symphony member and consummately expressive performer, provided a microcosm of klezmer music. Beigelman died in Auschwitz in 1945.
The remaining works set poetry from the camps. The words are searing. “I never saw another Butterfly” is a poem by Pavel Friedmann, who died in Auschwitz in 1944. On commission from MoR, Laitman set it for clarinet and voice, and begins with clarinet in almost cantorial fashion. It’s contemplative, slow, then interweaves with the voice (soprano Megan Chenovick), the long clarinet line reminiscent of the butterfly’s flight. The final words hang in the air: “Butterflies don’t live here in the ghetto.”
Also on commission, Heggie composed the song cycle Farewell, Auschwitz to poems (adapted by Scheer after translation by his parents) written by a courageous young Polish woman, Krystyna Zywulska, who survived the war. Jewish, she escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, changed her name, and joined the Polish resistance. Arrested and sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner, she began to write satirical verses about camp life that passed from inmate to inmate and were sung to pop tunes of the time, becoming popular morale boosters.
Farewell, Auschwitz is a song cycle of seven of these poems. Heggie composed original music for piano quartet and clarinet rather than try to determine what might have been used in the camp at the time. He used ’30s idioms, some reminiscent of Kurt Weill, and a couple of borrowed melodies, one from Liszt’s “La Campanella” and another from a Chopin waltz. Where Heggie has caught the true intent of Zywulska’s poems is in the frequent dichotomy between music and words. In one, “In the Cards,” scrabbling, skittering music accompanies the warning from one prisoner to another playing forbidden solitaire. “Miss Ziutka” describes the way only typing makes this woman feel happy, because only then is she in control, captain of her own soul. Heggie set it to pert, sassy music that leaves you with a bubble of laughter, despite the meaning.
The title song is the most unnerving. Emphatic words (“Take off your striped clothes, Kick off your clogs…. Hold your shaved head high”) and jazzy or klezmer-hinted music give you itchy toes, yet all the time there is a feel of inexorable, heavy-footed marching underneath. Shmidt, Gray, and DeLuca, with pianist Craig Sheppard and bassist Jonathan Green, joined the three singers – Chenovick, mezzo-soprano Julia Benzinger, and baritone Erich Parce, who sang defiantly, holding hands at the end. These are songs that shake you to the core.
Philippa Kiraly has been a freelance classical music critic since 1980. She wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal, then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise, and now for The Seattle Times, City Arts, and a blog, The Sun Break.