Keeping a Holocaust Survivor's Story Alive

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Seattle Times
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A review of the Music of Remembrance program on May 14, 2016 in Seattle, featuring the Jake Heggie/Gene Scheer musical drama, "Another Sunrise."

By Philippa Kiraly on May 16, 2012
Special to The Seattle Times

The focus of the Seattle group Music of Remembrance is just that: not allowing the enormity of the Holocaust to be forgotten.

In Monday's MOR concert, the premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's "Another Sunrise" brought to attention what it meant to survive that horror; the realization that survivors were not particularly victims or heroes, but normal people caught up in the close-grinding gears of Hitler's Final Solution.

The premise of the 17-minute music drama, minimally staged, performed by chamber quintet and sung by soprano Caitlyn Lynch, is that the memories may be there but the words to describe them are elusive. As such, it required context in written form. Program notes filled this admirably, as did a preamble by MOR artistic director Mina Miller, which introduced Polish writer and Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor Krystyna Zywulska, whose memories these are.

"Sunrise" is not a documentary. The content is true but the setting fictional: Zywulska struggling to tell her story to a tape recorder during a sleepless night.

This brief work goes to the essence of what it takes to survive.

Heggie's music is transparent, often luminous, and at the climax, shockingly intense, but not doom-laden. It reinforces that survival is made up of little details, often ordinary in themselves. The quintet of piano (Craig Sheppard), violin (Mikhail Shmidt), cello (Walter Gray), bass (Jonathan Green) and clarinet (Laura DeLuca) played it with close attention and care for the sixth musician, Lynch.

You hear in Lynch's singing Zywulska's frustration with not having the words, and the scenarios she does manage to describe, such as sneaking forbidden water to a dying friend. And then there is the larger nightmare — her camp job, which was taking and collating possessions of thousands of women, shoving them into line for the adjacent ovens, hearing the screams, knowing if she didn't do this, someone else would, and she would join that line.

Lynch's words were clear, and she inhabited the character with both beautiful voice and expressive demeanor.

The first half of the program included Pavel Haas' Suite for oboe and piano from 1939 (performed by Miller and Benjamin Hausmann), Viktor Ullmann's settings of Yiddish and Hebrew songs composed in the Terezin concentration camp (splendidly sung by The Northwest Boychoir under Joseph Crnko), and Szymon Laks' String Quartet No. 3, from 1945. Haas and Ullman died in Auschwitz; Laks survived.

Laks' work, played by violinists Shmidt and Leonid Keylin, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, and cellist Mara Finkelstein, is one that carries much emotion. There's a feeling of restless, unsettling defiance, of change, of an earnest, yearning lament, even a devil-may-care upbeat attitude in its different sections. Definitely a work to hear again; everything performed by MOR needs to be heard again.