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Chamber Music Review Print

A Holocaust Remembrance to Celebrate

October 19, 2008 - Durham, NC:

The Mallarmé Chamber Players presented a Yom Ha'Shoah (Holocaust remembrance) concert at the Nelson Music Room on Duke University's East Campus that provided an occasion for grief, inspiration, and celebration. Of course, Yom Ha'Shoah usually is observed in the spring, on the 27th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar. However this program has been in the works for a couple of years or more, and this was the first occasion when all the necessary musicians were all available. The outstanding artists involved in the program were violinists Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky and Dovid Frielander, violist Suzanne Rousso, cellist Nathan Leyland, clarinetist Fred Jacobowitz, pianist Elizabeth Tomlin, and baritone William Adams. Elizabeth Spragins, a music historian who has delved deeply into the history of music during the Holocaust, shared some information and a sense of reality about some of the composers whose music was on the program. She also shared some of the remarkable story of Alice Herz Sommer, a gifted and accomplished pianist who was interred at Theresienstadt (or Terezin) and performed there often. Viktor Ullmann dedicated his second Piano Sonata to her. She survived the camp and lives today in London, still positive and accepting the joy of life at 105.

The concert began and ended with two movements of Osvaldo Golijov's Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Golijov, born into a Jewish family in Argentina in 1960, is one of the hottest living composers, and this piece especially has earned him world-wide admiration from professional musicians and audiences alike. It was written for string quartet and clarinet and embodies a virtual history of the Jewish people: exile, Diaspora, Holocaust, and the joy and wails of raucous klezmer are all included.

We heard Erwin Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet, a suite of dances set in a modernist and often sardonic style. There is a Viennese waltz, unmistakable but also unmistakably twisted. The second movement, marked "Alla Serenada," reminded me of some of Mahler's childish marches at the beginning and in a plucked section near the end. The third movement had hints of Stravinsky, or even more so of Bartók. The fourth movement, "Alla Tango milonga," is the most lyrical; it is rather seductive and beautiful. And the final movement, "Alla Tarantella," is a driving, energetic burst of energy. Schulfoff was born in1894, and most of his creativity came from a prolific period in the 1920s. In spite of the hints of influence from other composers, his work bears a uniquely individual stamp. He died of tuberculosis in the Wulzburg prison camp in Bavaria in 1942, another victim of the years of insanity in Germany.

Closing the first half of the concert were two of the camp songs that were so important in Terezin, providing mockery of the over-bearers, entertainment, and relief from the constant uncertainty and terror. Two songs by the eclectic contemporary composer Paul Schoenfield were re-workings of pieces by Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who was interred at Sachsenhausen from 1939-45. They are like cabaret songs of a secret society, sung magnificently in all their dark humor by Adams.

After intermission, we heard Viktor Ullmann's Piano Sonata No. 7, performed convincingly by Tomlin. This was his last completed work before he was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Thankfully, Ullmann was able to give the autographs of his music to a friend to hide, and they have all been published (including his opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which was my joy to hear and review last February). The sonata is a musically accomplished and rewarding piece with dark moods and complex rhythms. It ends with a phenomenal set of variations that start in a decidedly minor mode, sounding folksy at times and jazzy at times, and closes with a vigorous fugue – Ullmann facing his certain death with an eye to a future that would somehow be better, perhaps, if we never forget – never forget.... While we grieve the loss of so much talent and promise, we celebrate the courage, endurance, and inspiration of an heroic culture.

As indicated above, the concert closed with the haunting, mystical music of Golijov — a prayer, a meditation on the meaning of life from the beginning to the end and what all of our human experience may yet come to. It is not too much to hope.

After the concert, there was a reception in honor of Anna Ludwig Wilson, co-founder of the Mallarmé Chamber Players and Artistic Director for 25 years. In her honor, a fund for the creation of new music was announced by MCP's new Artistic Director, Suzanne Rousso. We add our personal and collective expression of gratitude to Anna Ludwig Wilson along with our best wishes for rewarding experiences ahead.