Monday, September 19, 2011

Lawrence Siegel's "Kaddish-I am Here" is performed at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

As the late summer sun was setting over Jerusalem, hundreds of people were pouring onto Warsaw Ghetto Square of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem on September 8th 2011. Many were overseas guests, friends of Yad Vashem, there were diplomats, members of Knesset and other well-known Israelis and there were many elderly people making their way there slowly and silently; the latter were Holocaust survivors. All were gathered to hear American composer Lawrence Siegel’s “Kaddish-I Am Here”. This was to be the eighth performance of this Holocaust work, a piece commissioned by the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies of Keene State College, Keene NH, debuted at the Redfern Arts Center at Keene State College in May 2008, with the world premiere in Minneapolis in November 2008. Originally scored for chamber orchestra, a full symphonic version was premiered in Houston in 2010. We heard the work performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gil Shohat, with the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (Yuval Ben Ozer, conductor and musical director) the Shahar Choir (conductor and musical director Gila Brill) and four American soloists: soprano Maria Jette, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone James Bohn. I had the honor of exchanging a few words with the composer, who was present at the event.

Current speaker of the Knesset, MK Reuven Rivlin spoke of music as belonging to a pure world; he emphasized how the Nazis had shattered this myth. Rivlin, however, contends that music still stands for life, just as the Mourners’ Kaddish strengthens the living by praising life, and that Lawrence Siegel’s work is positive in its purpose. Chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, Avner Shalev, welcoming guests to the Mount of Remembrance, spoke of music as always having been a part of Jewish life – before, during and after the Holocaust. As a token of appreciation to Jane and Richard Cohen (USA) for their generous support in the project, Shalev presented them with the key to Yad Vashem.

Dr. Lawrence Siegel is a composer, theatre artist, scholar and performer, working in interrelated fields. The artistic director of Tricinium (building communities through participatory arts), he brings his “Verbatim Project” (an encounter in which people create and perform an original work about their own lives) to communities, schools and organizations. Siegel has composed much vocal music, chamber- and orchestral music and music for theatre, also being involved in collaborative projects. Born in the USA, Siegel is not a child of Holocaust survivors; his grandparents migrated to America from Kovno (Lithuania) and Poland.

Most of the verbal text for “Kaddish-I Am Here” was put together by Dr. Siegel, who condensed material taken from 60 hours of testimonies recorded by the composer himself in personal interviews with Holocaust survivors. Benjamin Warren, the son of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrück survivor Naomi Warren, initiated the production of the concert at Yad Vashem. In fact, Naomi Warren’s uplifting words end the work: “Here I am! I am here, I survived, and look who is with me!” The work falls into three sections: “The World Before”, “The Holocaust” and “Tikkun Olam” (Repairing the World).

As the work opens with a melancholy instrumental version of the Yiddish song “Oifen Pripichick” (In the fireplace burns a little fire) we are transported to pre-Holocaust Europe. Baritone James Bohn sings the Mourners’ Kaddish. This is followed by the mentioning of names of Jews from different locations as well as colorful pictures of aspects of Jewish life in pre-Nazi Europe - sung by soloists or choir – descriptions of smallholder farms, cooking, the love of learning, anti-Semitic beliefs among local gentiles and many references to tradition. Section flows into section, the music being mostly tonal, Siegel’s choral writing and orchestration are transparent, clean and never overloaded.
‘We could be on the horse and wagon,
And it rained, or snowed
Or sleet or whatever
Came a certain time
My father would stop the horse,
Get off the wagon
Face east
Shama! Yisroel!....(Hear, o Israel)

As the first movement concludes with the Yiddish song “Mutter Erd” (Mother Earth), choral and orchestral textures become disturbingly dissonant, issuing in the stories told in the second movement - “The Holocaust”. “My Daughter’s Name” powerfully tells the story of a survivor’s little sister being killed as his parents stayed with him, looking on; the men singers sing “Arrival at Auschwitz” to the strident, clattering sound effect associated with the sound of trains. “What a Beautiful Place You Have” is an eerie, haunting piece describing the life of a happy, secure and intellectual domestic existence becoming fraught with fear of being caught, ending in descriptions of people’s attempts to hide from the Nazis. “A Burden You Cannot Share” is painted with a cynical brush, at the same time enjoying the flavor of good, rhythmic American-style music. The work’s second movement ends with a spoken collage, a dynamic, loaded but articulate layered canvas of words, whereby choir members and, in fact, all the instrumentalists read out names and dates of people who had perished in the Holocaust, with Maestro Shohat bringing in and fading out small groups of speakers, larger groups and even individuals in the reading of names, ending in just one solitary voice. An outstanding effect.

Issuing in “Tikkun Olam” we heard James Bohn, accompanied by piano and horn, in a mellifluous and moving rendering of the Kaddish prayer, the third movement then moving into a positive mode with “Nothing Is As Whole As a Heart Which Has Been Broken” (words based on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslau) its refrain being as follows:
‘Nothing is as whole as a heart which has been broken.
All time is made up of healing the world.
Return to your ships which are your broken bodies.
Return to your ships, which will be rebuilt”.
This paves the way for Naomi Warren’s celebration of life, her joy at having survived the Holocaust and in being able to revisit her native Poland and Auschwitz with her whole family in 2003.

Lawrence Siegel steers away from complex, avant-garde musical styles, this sometimes resulting in a lack of sophistication, but he sees to making the verbal text audible and accessible to all, while his orchestration and choral style remain lucid and articulate. The fine diction of both choirs invites audience members to hear each word and gesture, to follow the message of the work and to connect with their own feelings. Maestro Gil Shohat led his orchestra and choirs with precision, clarity and dedication. The four soloists, clearly familiar with the work, its narrative and its meaning, all gave superb performances. With the final victorious, long major chords now just an echo, the people gathered in the Warsaw Ghetto Square of Yad Vashem rose to their feet in silence, respect and remembrance.

No comments: