Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer" at the 2016 Israel Festival

Maestro Murry Sidlin (photo:Jeff Roffman)

A significant event of the 2016 Israel Festival, “Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer” took place in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre on June 2nd. Designed, narrated and conducted by Murry Sidlin, whose “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” was performed at the 2012 Israel Festival, the current production presents works of 15 Jewish composers imprisoned in the Terezin Concentration Camp during World War II. Many of the works heard were the last composed by these composers, some in their 20s or 30s, who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Sidlin narrated in English, with Sharon Hacohen Bar reading in Hebrew. Soloists were pianist Phillip Silver (USA), the fama Q String Quartet (Czechoslovakia), Czech singers soprano Marie Fajtová, mezzo-soprano Veronika Hajnová and baritone Roman Janál, joined by tenor Dan Dunkelblum (Israel/Switzerland). Students of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance’s Younes and Soraya Chamber Program joined the fama Q players to form a chamber orchestra. The event received support from the Defiant Requiem Foundation and the Gretchen M. Brooks University Residency Project Fund.

 The Theresienstadt Camp in the garrison city of Terezin, was a “model camp”, the spotlighting of its rich cultural life a propaganda effort designed to fool the western allies. And, indeed, there was a huge amount of cultural activity in Terezin, the camp referred to by Sidlin as an “improvised university” featuring the plastic arts, offering lectures, theatre performances of new and old works, concerts, opera and even cabaret. German scholar Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873-1956), a prisoner there, referred to all this activity as “hours of freedom”, offering momentary relief from the camp’s horrific conditions and suffering.  In addition to the information presented by Sidlin and Hacohen Bar on the musical activity of composers in the camp, Terezin survivor and actress Zdenka Fantlová (on video) recounted much about cultural life there, explaining that composing and performing music in a camp where 200 people were dying every day were a means of fighting for life.

 The concert program was divided into nine themes, the first being Longing and opening with a song of Czech poet Ilse Weber (1903-1944), who had written more than 60 poems in Terezin, setting many to music. Her first song “I wander through Theresienstadt” which ends with “When will our suffering end, when shall we again be free?” was performed. It was she who had written that “words provide facts but that music provides the truth”. A nurse in the camp, Ilse Weber volunteered to be deported to Auschwitz together with Terezin’s sick children, perishing there with her son.  Pavel Haas’ (1899-1944) agonized “Far is My Home, O Moon” (to a Chinese text), effectively performed by Roman Janál, reflects the elements of Haas’ compositional style, its intensity and the pain of longing. More tonal was “Arioso” a ‘cello work by James Simon (1880-1944) (played here very poignantly by Balázs Adorján); Simon had been working on the work minutes before he was sent to the gas chambers.

 Hope – Music expressing hope for the future gave prisoners a sense of freedom. The last movement of the Trio composed by pianist and composer Gideon Klein (1919-1945) was a reminder of the cutting edge, sophisticated and brilliant writing of one of Terezin’s youngest and most promising musicians. Hope was in the soul of Rudolph Karel (1880-1944) when composing a nonet (would there be players to perform it?), his last work, on the few scraps of paper at his disposal. Fortunately, the sketches survived and the work was premiered in 1985. The second movement, lyrical and evocative, with no hint of gloom, was performed at the Jerusalem concert. And we learned that there were two cabaret companies functioning in Terezin. Zdenka Fantlová, herself a cabaret artist, spoke of the witty, ironical and political content of these shows. Czech cabaret artist, comedian, songwriter and writer Karel Švenk (1917-1945) was a leading figure on the Terezin cabaret scene. Soprano Maria Fajtová re-created the vivacity, humour and optimism of Švenk’s deceptively jolly song “Vsechno Jde” (Anything Goes!), a marching tune that was quickly to become the camp anthem.

 The Messenger – This refers to letters sent by prisoners to families to reassure them that “all is well”. Murry Sidlin also spoke of composer Viktor Kohn’s (1910-1944) musical portrait of Jakob Edelstein (a leader and hero of the Terezin Ghetto, who perished in Auschwitz). Kohn’s Preludium for String Quartet opus 12 (1942) opens with the notes e-d-e, the first letters of Edelstein’s name, a  work rich in tension but also warmth; it was performed with dedication by the fama Q string quartet. The 5th movement of Piano Sonata no.7 by Viktor Ullmann, one of Czechoslovakia and Terezin’s major composers, includes some very different elements - a Hussite patriotic tune, a Lutheran chorale and the BACH motif, also a setting of a song by the poetess Rachel, the latter emerging as a symbol of the composer’s identity. The movement was performed by Phillip Silver.

 Fate – (Schicksal in German) was a preoccupation among Terezin inmates. German-born Zikmund Schul (1916-1944), whose friend and mentor was Viktor Ullmann, died of tuberculosis in Terezin. Veronika Hajnová’s performance of “Schicksal” (1943) for alto, flute viola and ‘cello from the “Dunkle Klange” (Dark Sounds) cycle was given an impactful, dramatic and philosophical rendition, its final word emerging as “death”. Hans Krása’s fate was to be sent to Auschwitz in 1944 along with Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, where all perished in the gas chambers.  Known for his children’s opera “Brundibár”, Krása (1899-1944) combined highly melodic writing with interesting instrumentation that characterized his own vivid and personal style.  Singing one of Krása’s last works “Three Songs” (1943) for baritone, clarinet, viola and ‘cello to poems of Arthur Rimbaud, Roman Janál gave voice to the beauty of nature and to joy but also hinting at fragility and fate. The Terezin cabaret artists addressed fate with sarcasm, as heard in Berlin-born jazz pianist Martin Roman’s (1919-1996) “We are riding on wooden horses” from “Karussell” (1844), its lyrics evoking memories of the carnival and better times; it was presented vividly by mezzo-soprano Veronika Hajnová.

 Eye Witness: Nothing could be more realistic and blatant than “The Auschwitz Corpse Factory” from opera singer, composer and conductor Karel Berman’s (1919-1995) “Terezín Suite”. This piano suite (commemorating the composer’s 25th birthday), one of the few works to actually comment on events of the Holocaust from the perspective of an insider, taking its cue from the death march and horrors there, has become one of the best-known piano works written in Terezin.  The great Czech conductor Karel Ancerl, a Terezin prisoner, had requested a work from Pavel Haas for the Terezin Orchestra. The Nazis filmed the performance of “Studie for Strings” for propaganda. Haas took the score with him to Auschwitz, where he perished, but Ancerl, who survived, was fortunate in finding the orchestral parts in Terezin after the war. A moving moment of Sidlin’s production was the Nazis’ film of the performance, with the players on stage at the Jerusalem Theatre joining those on the crackly, black-and-white film.

Pure Entertainment: Violinist Egon Ledeč (1889-1944) was transported to Terezin in December 1941, where he played in the ‘Doctors’ Quartet’, the first string quartet formed in the camp, then establishing the Ledeč Quartet. He sometimes entertained other prisoners by performing in a courtyard with an accordionist and was known to have taken his quartet into the forest for a relaxing place to play. We heard his Gavotte for String Quartet, a tonal piece abounding in charm and a sense of well-being. Robert Dauber (1922-1945), a talented pianist and ‘cellist, died of typhoid in Dachau. His only surviving composition - Serenade for Violin and Piano -  a gentle, sweetly sentimental piece, shows the influence of his father, Dol Dauber, a composer of dance music.

 The Broken Heart: Accomplished pianist, conductor and composer Carlo Taube (1897-1944) was deported to Terezin with his wife and child.  Of the works he composed there, only his song “Ein jüdisches Kind” (A Jewish Child) – the words written by his wife - has survived. Marie Fajtová gave a sensitive and delicately shaped performance of the lullaby in which parents express love for the child for whom they are unable to provide a home. We then watched some footage of one of the 50-or-so Terezin performances of “Brundibár”, this children’s opera composed by Hans Krása in 1938 to a libretto of Adolf Hoffmeister. The Nazi propaganda film shows a children’s chorus and a large captivated audience. What the film cannot disguise are the children’s serious, set facial expressions, their sad eyes reflecting their awareness of impending tragedy.

 Censorship: Setting a libretto of poet Peter Klein, Viktor Ullmann composed “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” while interned in Terezin. An unconcealed indictment of war and Nazi atrocities, Ullmann used in it such strategies as reversing the German national anthem. An SS officer halted a rehearsal of the work, after which Ullmann and his family were never seen again; the opera was never staged in Terezin. Somehow, the manuscript survived. Enlisting the three Czech guest singers, Murry Sidlin presented an excerpt from this masterpiece, whose bleak message also includes moments of hope. Sidlin spoke of how manuscripts survived Terezin - some hidden in walls, under floors and other places, some passed from hand to hand; many manuscripts have been lost for ever.

 In Memoriam: “Hours of Freedom” concluded with Murry Sidlin conducting Bohuslav Martinů’s (1890-1959) sombre and restrained “Memorial to Lidice” for orchestra H.296, composed in 1943.  Following the assassination of one of the chief architects of the Nazi “final solution”, Hitler had ordered the extermination of Lidice, a small village which happened to be near where the attack had taken place. The Nazis killed the men, sent the women and most of the children to concentration camps, then levelling the whole town, including the cemetery. Martinů, a Czech non-Jewish composer, was living in the USA at the time he wrote the piece, later returning to France, his adopted homeland.

 Maestro Sidlin first learned the story of Terezin in 1994 from “The Music of Terezin”, a book he found at the bottom of a sale table in a Minneapolis bookstore. This led to “The Defiant Requiem” presentation. Once again, Maestro Sidlin has produced a profound, well-researched and fascinating program, rich in information and offering some very fine musical performance of works by 15 composers who were prisoners in Theresienstadt.  It was Viktor Ullmann who in his essay “Goethe and the Ghetto” had written: “We did not simply sit down by the rivers of Babylon and weep but evinced a desire to produce art that was entirely commensurate with our will to live”. “Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer”, paying homage to these composers, was moving, enriching and humbling.


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