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It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the mountains, the kind of day that would normally have residents treading the trails, patrolling the Parkway or tackling fall chores in their yards. But instead, close to 300 people came to a 4:00 p.m. program at Central United Methodist Church. Entitled “Up From the Ashes: Music and Poetry of the Holocaust,” the event was in remembrance and in recognition of the creative talent that vanished in the Holocaust.
The choir of Beth HaTephila synagogue and the choir of the Episcopal Cathedral of All Souls were joined by the A.C. Reynolds High School Madrigal Singers to form a 66-member choir for most of the choral liturgical music. The opening “Ani Ma’amin” and the closing “Ilu Finu” were conducted by Cantor Debra Winston of Beth HaTephila, who also sung an arrangement of “Babi Yar” accompanied by Kyle Ritter on piano. Ritter, who is choirmaster at All Souls, conducted “Ashreitta-Gafrur” and a setting of the Twenty-third Psalm.
The music was interspersed with poetry and prose readings, mostly of works by concentration camp inmates.
The young madrigalists from the high school had one work to themselves. They sang a “Medley from Schindler’s List” accompanied by English horn, flute, cello and piano. The performance reminded one of the benefits of youth, such as a good memory. The choristers maintained terrific eye contact with their leader Ms. Janis Bryant, often turning pages at the appropriate spot without looking down … an indication that they not only knew the words and music, but had memorized the page turns. And they knew how to sing.
The “Schindler’s List” music by John Williams has an accessibility that made it a good choice for the audience, many of whom were not regular concert attendees. And equally accessible was “I Remember,” a remarkable work by minor Broadway composer Michael Cohen with libretto and lyrics taken from Anne Frank’s diary by Broadway librettist Enid Futterman.
Written in 1994, “I Remember” was the longest and musically most important piece on Sunday’s program. The Keowee Chamber Players (flute, cello and harp) were joined by soprano Tena Greene of Tryon, who is well-versed in musical theater as well as opera. The four musicians gave a well-prepared and convincing performance. The linking of Anne Frank’s precocious words to music evocative of the drama and suffering, the isolation and impending tragedy, creates a double impact. The performance affected the audience, perhaps most notably the nineteen teenage madrigal singers who likely were empathetic with the author’s adolescent words and responsive to the musical expression.
Cohen uses a four-note instrumental motif that recurs throughout the 23 minute work. Judicious modulations of key and variation in instrumental color alter the motif to match the text at various points. Over all, the piece demonstrates that the Broadway musical is an art form that can, in the best hands, be used for very serious dramatic purposes. “I Remember” is a work that deserves to be heard more often but, like most chamber works for an unusual combination of instruments, probably will not be. Along with string sextets and music for diverse instruments, it takes effort to program a piece for flute, harp, cello and soprano. What else that uses the same combination of musicians can be included on the program?
The Keowee Chamber Players are a group with ties to Greenville, SC through their cellist Elizabeth Austin and to Asheville through their flutist Kate Steinbeck. The third regular member is harpist Judy Bailey. Depending upon the repertory, they add other local woodwind and string players. Each summer they give a short musical festival in Western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina; the rest of the year they appear as opportunities arise. They have been together long enough to be a very cohesive small ensemble, and each appearance I have attended has been a pleasure, including this one. In my book, it is allowable to take pleasure from a memorial service when the poetry and music is a celebration of life, as this event was.