A Sense Of Gallows Humor Invigorates Holocaust Concert

A string quartet plays in Ryuichi Sakamoto’s `Passage,’ premiered by Music of Remembrance. (Photos: Ben VanHouten)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE – For 22 seasons, Mina Miller’s one-of-a-kind Seattle-based Music of Remembrance (MOR) has performed and commissioned music that addresses the Holocaust. With its core mission broadened by necessity in an era of rising hatred for the “other,” MOR presented two world premieres during its November 3 season opener in Seattle’s 536-seat Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall: Shinji Eshima’s Veritas (2019), which addressed the ultimate consequences of intolerance of all kinds, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Passage (2018), which sets the words of his young Egyptian friend, Kareem Lotfy, who became a refugee after watching multiple friends killed before his eyes.

However, the high point of the concert was not those pieces, but rather the closing work, Paul Schoenfield’s Camp Songs (2001). Based on poems and songs created in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp by a non-Jewish, antifascist journalist, Aleksander Kulisiewicz, the first version of Camp Songs became a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music after MOR gave the world premiere in 2002. On this occasion, MOR presented the mainly English version of the songs (2004) in a new dramatic realization conceived and directed by Erich Parce, who also sang in the production.

A scene from Paul Schoenfield’s `Camp Songs,’ the highlight of the evening’s program.

Schoenfield’s treatment of Kulisiewicz’s sardonic, irony-filled songs was just what was needed after three increasingly sad, slowly evolving certifiable downers. While this critic hardly expects Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma at a MOR concert, I felt so put through the ringer by the time that Camp Songs began that I found myself longing for either a long soak in a hot tub or a huge helping of chocolate layer cake. Schoenfield’s brilliant balance of unspeakable horrors with unrestrained gallows humor hit the spot.

Given that Kulisiewicz’s creations frequently hint at their messages rather than declaring them outright — they were initially performed before concentration camp prisoners who understood their many references — Parce’s dramatizations and projections were essential to driving Schoenfield’s message home. After an unintentionally humorous false start — two of the five onstage instrumentalists were forced to stop after the lights on their music stands went out — the piece benefited from the huge outpourings of energy that baritone Parce, soprano Karen Early Evans, violinist Mikhail Shmidt, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, cellist Walter Gray, double bassist Jonathan Green, and pianist Jessica Choe devoted to their respective parts.

Paul Schoenfield: Sardonic songs. (Milken Family Foundation)

Parce, who moved with a freedom often associated with artists half his age, sang and acted up a storm as mutating concentration camp photographs and other images deepened the impact of voice, instrument, and lyrics. Evans may not have been as physically demonstrative, but her equally strong and perfectly projected voice made its considerable mark. Shmidt, DeLuca, and Choe were the other standouts who pulled the audience out of the doldrums. I can only hope that a video of this superb performance is made available by MOR.

Eshima’s Veritas, performed by Gray and Green before Kate Duhamel’s slowly moving media design projections of anti-war sculpture by Al Farrow, was a far more laid back affair. It needn’t have been, given that it reframed music that Pablo Casals called “tragic” — J.S. Bach’s Second Suite for Solo Cello as a duet between cello and double bass. But because Gray played not like a soloist but rather as a reticent ensemble member who eschewed wide dynamic swings, richness, and bite, Green had no choice but to follow suit. What could have been a searing performance in which double bass commentary added the sounds of bombardments, fighter aircraft, and other war-associated sounds to Bach’s increasingly sad cello lines, instead became an extended meditation on Farrow’s images.

Cellist Walter Gray and bassist Jonathan Green playing a reframed Bach cello suite in Shinji Eshima’s `Veritas.’

Those images explored Farrow’s “Vandalized Doors” series, which utilizes actual bullets, shellcasings, and weapons to reconstruct damaged entrances to a mosque, a church, and a synagogue. Immensely eloquent in their own right, they ideally would have driven Eshima’s interpretation of Bach’s music straight to the heart. Due to the soft-spoken musicianship, however, Eshima’s contributions paled by comparison.

In the premiere of Sakamoto’s short Passage, José Rubio very softly and slowly recited text as a string quartet composed of violinists Shmidt and Takumi Taguchi, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, and cellist Gray quietly performed cold, empty, chilling, and deeply moving music. It was difficult to take notes as Rubio slowly spoke his lines, one of which may have been, “I felt as though I was grasping for gravity on another planet.” Had the premiere taken place in a more varied musical context, its effects would have been even more profound.

At the time of commissioning, Miller was likely unawares of the tempo and dynamic similarities between the two premieres and the short opening work, Simon Sargon’s Before the Ark (1987). Young violinist Taguchi, who intentionally opened with muffled tone, wonderfully evoked the sounds of tears as Miller, on piano, supported his prayerful implications. Had Taguchi only dug into his instrument more rather than emitting a slender thread of beautiful tone, the piece would have made a greater impact.

MOR commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz on January 27. Next, it welcomes Violins of Hope to Seattle on March 1. The season ends with two Holocaust-inspired works by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope (2019) and For a Look or a Touch (2007), a MOR commission, on May 17 (Seattle) and May 19 (San Francisco).

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.