“Sights & Sounds on Sundays” presented jointly by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and the North Carolina Museum of Art, has always offered something more. The series features performing artists from across North Carolina, often in unique instrumental and vocal pairings, sometimes introducing local audiences to rarely heard musical cultures and traditions, and of course, a docent-led tour of a museum exhibit related to the music. All of this for a modest admission fee makes Sunday afternoons something to look forward to and cherish in memory.

This final concert of the 2010-11 season, titled “Sides of Being Jewish,” featured the Atlantean Trio out of Wilmington (UNC-W), and a pre-concert tour of the NCMA’s unique permanent collection of Judaica, largely the bequest of the late Dr. Abram Kanof, a physician and respected scholar of Jewish art and symbolism. The Atlantean Trio was formed in 2005 by violinist Joseph Brunjes, cellist Richard Thomas, and pianist Barry David Salwen when all were at UNC-W. Brunjes, a native of Wilmington, currently performs with the Long Bay Symphony, is founder and conductor of the Oleander Chamber Orchestra, and maintains a private studio. Thomas is Assistant Professor of Music at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, and Director of the Presbyterian College Chamber Orchestra. Salwen, based at UNC-W, is an international concert pianist, giving performances and master classes in the US, Europe, Israel and Asia.

A tune heard in a Second Avenue Yiddish theater provided Aaron Copland with the inspiration for his only known composition addressing his Jewish heritage. “Vitebsk – Study on a Jewish Theme” is based on this melody. It attempts to portray Jewish life surrounded by the harshest of conditions in a small village in Russia. The music is some of the most dissonant and challenging he wrote and even includes quarter-step harmonies which are especially difficult for most western ears to come to terms with. 

The opening section assaults our ears with quarter-tone passages in the strings against harsh tone-cluster chords from the piano in an evocation of the sound of the shofar. A couple of minutes into the piece, the cello introduces a folk melody that is said to have originated in Vitebsk. Full of melancholy and yearning, the melody goes through several twists, some haunting and some harsh and some hinting at brief joyous interludes, before the shofar theme returns along with a final statement of the folk song theme. The Atlantaen Trio handled the complexities and challenges masterfully and gave the audience a stirring performance.

There are some coincidental parallels between the Copland piece and the next selection on the program, Meira Warshauer’s 1990 composition “Aecha (Lamentations).” (The word “Aecha” is loosely translated “How.”) The inspiration for Warshauer’s piece comes from a traditional Jewish chant from the book of Lamentations which is heard on the Jewish fast day of T’isha b’Av. Second Avenue Yiddish theater is not that far removed from the Synagogue and the rich heritage of the Diaspora is infectious no matter where it is encountered. “Aecha” begins with this mystical theme, full of longing and endurance, played achingly by Thomas under a shimmering violin background provided by Brunjes. Then the composer, as did Copland, calls on the piano in all its force with dark tone-cluster chords, awesome as played by Salwen, to impose the harsh conditions that Jewish people endured from slavery in Egypt to the Holocaust. A prayer theme drawing in part on the Rosh Hashanah prayer “Avinu malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) begs for an answer to the overwhelming despair. Gradually the mood of the music changes as traditional Hasidic melodies dance their way into our awareness. The hope in the coming of the Messiah is great on this fast day (T’isha b’Av) when, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah is to be born. What was born in despair lives in hope to be fulfilled in a harvest of joy. Through Warshauer’s imaginative and moving music and a superb performance by the Atlantean Trio we were provided a memorable glimpse into this side of being Jewish.

Warshauer, currently based in South Carolina, is a native of Wilmington, NC; she was present for the performance, following which she was recognized and warmly applauded.

Felix Mendelssohn was born into a distinguished and cultured Jewish heritage in a time when European anti-Semitism was riding the swell of an awful wave that crested and fell with unspeakable horror in the 1940s. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a highly regarded philosopher. His father’s home hosted great musicians, artists, poets and thinkers. The father, Abraham, had renounced the Jewish religion and sought to raise his children without religious education. In 1816, when Felix was seven years old the family was baptized as Lutherans. Felix remained a devout and active Lutheran until his death. It seems unquestionable that a major part of his religious conviction was tied up in his deep admiration and appreciation of J. S. Bach. It also seems unquestionable that he was aware of and proud of his Jewish heritage. However, he was not, even by devout religious conversion, to avoid demonic anti-Semitism which became a racial, rather than religious issue. Many of his compositions fell under brutal German censorship laws and were denied publication. Even today, it is not uncommon to come across a premier of a Mendelssohn composition, uncovered from a cache hidden in London or Brussels or a dozen other locations where they were preserved.  

Fortunately, for music lovers everywhere, the masterful and powerful Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66, has been available since it was published in 1845. It is in four movements in the strict classical style. The first movement, marked “Allegro energico e con fuoco,” is fully developed around three themes woven together with increasing intensity. It ends with a series of explicit cadences that seem almost to set it apart from the rest of the work. The second movement is marked “Andante espressivo” and provides a calm relief from the driving intensity of the first movement. The third movement is a typical Mendelssohn scherzo, marked “Molto allegro, quasi presto.” It is brisk, airy and playful, reminiscent of the fairies from A Midsummer’s Night Dream or the scherzo from the Octet. Then there is the powerful and moving fourth movement (“Allegro appassionato”) which like the first movement weaves three themes together in a rondo style. The most memorable theme is the chorale melody “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” (known to Protestants as the Doxology) that has variously been traced to the Geneva Psalter of 1551 or Bach’s last chorale prelude, S.668, dictated to his assistant from his deathbed. The second statement of this theme and the closing coda present towering music of triumph that stretches the limitations of the piano trio. Mendelssohn’s use and treatment of this chorale leaves the listener with an overwhelming sense of the victory of light over dark.

The Atlantean Trio presented a well-conceived and balanced program with a high level of technical skill and perceptive musical interpretation.

“Sights & Sounds on Sundays” kicks off a new season in just a matter of weeks with the Mallarmé Chamber Players. Keep an eye on the CVNC calendar for details.