by Rod Parke -
SGN A&E Writer
Music of Remembrance presents Vedem
Teenage Jewish boys, imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp for two years, wrote and collected poetry, essays, and illustrations in a hidden journal that they named "Vedem" (That's Czech for "in the lead"). They did this while suffering starvation, cold, typhus, typhoid, lice, vermin, and who knows what kinds of mistreatment at the hands of the Nazi officers.
At the extraordinary debut of the Holocaust oratorio, Vedem, Music of Remembrance, which commissioned the work, presented not only a stunning performance but also a dramatic testimonial by four of the six living survivors of Terezin. These men, now in their 80s, came from Florida, New Jersey, Toronto, and Australia to be part of this world premiere. They came in tribute to their fellow "inmates" and what they all suffered. Before the concert, we met them in a panel discussion of their history. Far from feeble, they offered testimony to the spirit that helped them and the words of Vedem survive, both as a book and as text of this oratorio.
Sidney Taussig (see photo, in the white dinner jacket) first buried the pages of Vedem in the dirt floor of his father's blacksmith shop, which serviced the horses of the Nazi officers. He was not sent on to the Auschwitz death camp because he protested to the officers that his father could not do his work without him, thus staying to the end at Terezin. After the liberation, Taussig returned to that shop and dug up the pages.
(I caught one of these men backstage and asked him a rather naive question: Were there any pink triangles in the room they lived in? He replied, "Oh no, we were only children!" Yet the moving opera, For a Look or a Touch by Jake Heggie, also commissioned in 2007 by MOR, describes just how young one could be to face death by the Nazi regime for being homosexual! An excellent CD of that short work is available at the MOR website, www.musicofremembrance.org/recordings.)
Librettist David Mason and composer Lori Laitman, whom we also met at the preconcert discussion, collaborated on the score. The music was very easy on the ears, often in three-quarter time, and beautifully written for the voice. Tenor Ross Hauck and mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh joined the Northwest Boychoir, under Joseph Crnko. Mikhail Shmidt, violin; Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Walter Gray, cello; and Mina Miller, piano, provided the instrumental support. The Northwest Boychoir played a large part in this 50-minute work, and they did it all from memory! They and all the performers were flawless and utterly committed.
The mood varied greatly from mournful, to cocky (words of Nazi officials), to comic. For instance,
"My darling, I'd love to kiss you so
But you're all wrapped up from head to toe.
Five panties, two dresses, a cap and a hat,
How can a chap get his arms around that?"
Poem by Josef Taussig (no relation to Sidney Taussig in the photo).
The program began with "In Memoriam" for cello and string quartet, by Gerard Schwarz. His son, Julian, played the cello, as he had back in 2007 at the world premiere of For a Look or a Touch. This nine-minute work, like Seattle Opera's recent world premiere of Amelia, is a perfect example of music that is not difficult to hear but requires several auditions to appreciate. Fortunately, it is included on the previously mentioned CD of For a Look or a Touch.
Of greater length and substance was the following "String Quartet No. 3" by Pavel Haas (b. Bruno, 1899 - d. Auschwitz, 1944). With never a dull moment, the quartet varied greatly in tonality, with the basic idiom not far removed from that of Bartok. The slower second movement had a folksy march in it middle, and the closing "Allegro vivace" became almost drunken near the end.
Not on the program, but inserted after the opening work, was Dvorak's "Humoresque," played by violinist Leonid Keylin and pianist Mina Miller. This tune was, as Mina pointed out, a marvelous demonstration of the power of music to inspire and sustain, for it was what made it possible for one of the survivors, Emil Kopel, to keep going during the death march to Auschwitz. It ran like an "earworm" through his mind and counteracted the effects of seeing his friends die when they could no longer go on. Kopel, sitting near me, was sobbing as Mina told this story.
Music of Remembrance attracts great, impassioned musicians. The music is always first-rate and should not be missed. This world premiere was sold out, and the audience could not have been more appreciative.
Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at email@example.com.
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