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Choral Music Review Print

A Superb but Solemn Set

March 24, 2002 - Durham, NC:

On the afternoon of March 24 in Duke University's chapel, the 33-member Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham presented a roughly 75-minute intermission-less program featuring Donald McCullough's 13-movement Holocaust Cantata with guest baritone William Adams and accompaniment by NSC principal cellist Bonnie Thron and pianist Jane Lynch.

McCullough's (b.1957) work is not really a cantata, strictly speaking, because it consists of songs interspersed with readings of texts rather than arias and recitatives. His creative role was admittedly more that of arranger than composer, the fruit and product of his research in the archives of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It was premièred in Washington, DC, by the Master Chorale (http://masterchorale.org/ [inactive 9/09]), of which McCullough is the music director and conductor, on March 17, 1998, and has been recorded on the Albany label, catalog no. 352. The texts of the six songs, two of them by the same individual, were written by prisoners in various concentration camps, identified in the program listing along with the dates of composition, and translated into English by Denny Clark. Their music comes from various sources: some are original compositions by prisoners, three by the same individual, while others are traditional melodies, either military or folk. The spoken texts, read for this performance by "Holocaust survivors or members of survivors' families, or [individuals] who fought in the struggle leading to the establishment of the State of Israel," are likewise drawn from various sources including "interview transcripts, historical data, and the story of Irena Augustyñska Kafka."

Together, they evoke the experience of the epochal event and all its horrors, and at the same time its inability to vanquish the human spirit. The first of the readings is in the voice of a singer who helped form a group that sang clandestinely in the evenings to help them confront the harsh realities of the day and ultimately survive. The second recounts the act of defiance of a man about to be hanged in kicking away the stool on which he stood so as to take his own life and keep his captors from having satisfaction in their endeavors. The following song ends with the defiant line: "We'll not let them rule over us!" Another reading tells of prisoners tapping into a supply of wine and getting drunk-under those conditions, very little was needed to produce that result-and singing a rousing song about the joys of life in Auschwitz.

The structure of the work gives it balance and variety. The song that forms the emotional center of the piece, No. 7, "The Train," tells of the forced separation of a couple in the voice of the man left standing on the platform. It is a baritone solo; Adams sang it beautifully. Several of the songs alternate men's and women's voices with four-part sections. One is men only, another women only as appropriate for the text. The 11th movement is a cello-piano duet on a tango rhythm, reminding this reviewer of the story of Fanny Fénélon told in the film Playing For Time and of the fact that Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin des temps was composed in a camp, its instrumentation determined by the musicians and instruments available. The closing song is sung to the cello: "Cello, play the sad song, song of agony and woe, song of bonds that still hold on, song of days now gone...." It featured fine solos by soprano Carol Troutner and mezzo-soprano Rachel Steelman of the choir. No one applauded when it ended. The atmosphere so beautifully created by the performance was simply too solemn.

Four a capella Christian works completed the program: Polish composer Henryck Górecki's (b.1933) Euntes ibant et flebant.. . (He that goes forth and weeps.), combining verses from Ps 95 and 126; Estonian Arvo Pärt's (b.1935) Memento , a setting, in church Slavonic, of the Russian Orthodox Canon of Repentance, Ode VII; Englishman John Tavener's (b.1944) Funeral Ikos , using Isabel Hapgood's English translation of a passage from the Greek Orthodox Service for the Burial of Dead Priests; and Górecki's "Amen." It is probably safe to say that all of these composers were profoundly affected by their knowledge of the event memorialized in the Cantata and its consequences. The Tavener was particularly lovely and memorable for its alternation of voices between stanzas-men, women, all, in unison, two- and four-part harmony-with everyone singing the Alleluia that closed each one.

Diction and enunciation were excellent throughout. This is the perfect venue for works like the Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener that need to resonate and echo in the vast spaces, and they did so without becoming murky. It proved to be ideal as well for the McCullough. The piano did not ring out above the voices and the often mournful tones of the cello could at the same time be distinctly heard.

The printed program provided the texts of all the sung works and brief comments about them (some of which are quoted above), but no information about the composers. A list of choristers, information about the choir and its director were given, but nothing about the guest artists. It was printed on grey paper; its cover with a barbed-wire frame and shattered lettering for the title and the composers' names was appropriately striking.