Concerts to remember Holocaust

Area music programs to feature works of composers killed in WWII

April 17, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Anti-Semitism, never far from the surface of human relations, seems to be on the rise once more in many parts of the world. Add in the kind of unfortunate thinking expressed recently by Mel Gibson - "The Second World War killed tens of millions of people; some of them were Jews in concentration camps" - and there is abundant need for Holocaust Remembrance Day, officially observed tomorrow in this country.

Two remarkable music programs in Baltimore and Washington will help intensify that remembrance this weekend; another pair of programs in Washington will continue the process next month. Three of the programs contain music by composers who perished during the Nazis' campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe; another revisits an extraordinary act of music-making, solidarity and defiance that occurred inside a concentration camp.

That particular camp was near Prague. Its local name was Terezin; the Germans called it Theresienstadt. History marks it as one of the Nazis' cruelest exercises in dehumanization.

Terezin was a show camp, a place that unsuspecting and gullible visitors, including Red Cross officials, could be taken to see how decently Europe's Jews were being interned. To help with the deceit, the Nazis took full advantage of a large number of visual, literary and musical artists among the prisoners and, to a degree unknown at other camps, allowed cultural life to unfold - flourish would be too strong a word. Daily concerts often featured music written in the camp.

All the while, Terezin's true purpose as a way station to Auschwitz never changed. Of the 140,000 interned at Terezin, 33,000 died of depravation and torture; 87,000 were transported to Auschwitz or other camps, where only 5 percent survived.

Among the stories of determination and creativity in Terezin, none is more poignant than that of Rafael Schachter, the conductor who organized a chorus of 150 prisoners to perform one of the monuments of classical music, Verdi's Requiem. Schachter overcame objections from other Jews in the camp, uncomfortable with the idea of performing a work with a Catholic liturgical text. He also overcame the most hideous obstacle - re-forming the chorus when members were shipped out to the gas chambers.

Schachter's efforts yielded 16 performances of the Requiem between 1943 and 1944, before he was sent to his death. Throughout, he was guided by the belief that Verdi's masterwork enabled the prisoners to say things through music to their captors that they could otherwise never utter - prayers for peace, comfort and eternal rest, warnings of a day of judgment when the wicked shall perish.

Murry Sidlin, dean of Catholic University's school of music, spent several years researching the phenomenon of these choral performances. The result was a combination of documentary and concert, Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin, that was aired on PBS last year. Tonight and tomorrow, Sidlin will conduct this "concert drama" at C.U. Soprano Sharon Christman, mezzo-soprano Eleni Matos, tenor Philip Webb and bass-baritone Gary Relyea will join an orchestra and 225-voice chorus for this Defiant Requiem.

Among the exceptional composers claimed by the Holocaust was Erwin Schulhoff, whose Piano Concerto will be given its U.S. premiere in a Holocaust Remembrance Day program presented by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore tomorrow afternoon at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (all tickets for this free event have been distributed).

The soloist in the concerto will be Jan Simon. Elli Jaffe, music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in this concert, which also offers music from the film The Pianist.

The Prague-born Schulhoff, who died in Wulzburg concentration camp in 1942, developed an intriguingly eclectic, colorful style that could mix spiky harmonies with jazz and popular dance forms, exemplified by his Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Instruments. That work will be heard on a program May 11 presented by the Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music Concerts Series, featuring the Hawthorne String Quartet, members of the National Symphony Orchestra and conductor James Conlon.

During this concert, the Hawthorne ensemble will also play the tense and lyrical String Quartet No. 3 by Czech composer Viktor Ullmann, who was interned at Terezin in 1942 and gassed at Auschwitz two years later. His sophisticated musical language seamlessly fused tonality and dissonance.

Just before he was sent from Terezin, Ullmann completed his seventh piano sonata, which was later orchestrated and renamed Symphony No. 2. In that form, it will be heard in Kennedy Center concerts by the National Symphony May 13-15, conducted by Conlon.

Like his fellow composers at Terezin, including Peter Haas (who will also be represented on the NSO program), Gideon Klein and Hans Krasa, Ullmann represents enormous talent cruelly cut off in its prime. The legacy of Terezin is not only the music made by its prisoners, but, most chillingly, the sound of premature silence.

Concerts

Holocaust Remembrance Day concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; 2 p.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; sold out.

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin 7:30 tonight and tomorrow at Catholic University's Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, 620 Michigan Ave., N.E., Washington. Call 202-319-5416.

Hawthorne String Quartet and guests 7:30 p.m. May 11; National Symphony Orchestra 7 p.m. May 13, 8 p.m. May 14, 15; Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire Aves., N. W., Washington.

Call 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.

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