Much attention has been devoted recently to music composed by Jewish prisoners in the Czech ghetto/concentration camp of Terezín, many of whom enjoyed significant careers before their imprisonment. This recording provides a glimpse into a different subset of creative hostages — a group of fourteen-year-old boys segregated into a barrack at Terezín called Home One. These boys wrote poetry and essays and published them in a clandestine magazine called Vedem ("in the lead.") Almost all of these young scribes perished, but one, Sidney Taussig, buried 800 pages of his peers' writings and lived to retrieve them after the war. Mina Miller, founder and artistic director of Seattle-based Music of Remembrance, commissioned composer Lori Laitman and librettist David Mason to craft an oratorio based on the boys' writings. Vedem was given its world premiere in Seattle in May 2010, with four of the six surviving Home One boys, including Taussig, on hand to hear it.
The opening, "Hear My Story Now," grabs the listener immediately with a forceful instrumental wrench and a clear, impassioned plea to be heard, sung with piercing robustness by tenor Ross Hauck. The piece develops into a contrapuntal cri de coeur, incorporating the pure and precise Northwest Boychoir, as well as a mezzo and treble soloists. Throughout the work, the trebles provide a crucial reminder of just how young and alone these children were. Laitman uses the young voices judiciously, contrasting them with the mature ones, which hint at the future the young poets never had. As frankly moving and beautiful as Laitman's music is, none of this is easy to listen to — which, of course, is part of the point. In the haunting title movement, the choir sings cluster chords over a piano ostinato as ominous as a fearful heartbeat. "Thoughts," with its repeated refrain, "Mummy, come hold me," is one of the more distressing selections. One of the stranger, but utterly relatable, moments is "Love in the Floodgates," a flirtatious tune set in macabre counterpoint to Dvorˇák's "Humoresque," a juxtaposition inspired by one survivor's inability to get that tune out of his head as he endured a death march to Buchenwald. "A Model Ghetto" is a creepy piece of self-referential propaganda advertising "the happy Jews" who "performed an opera." It ends with the boys exhorting the visiting Red Cross dignitaries not to leave before they learn the awful truth about life in the camp.
Laitman's text setting is straightforward and artful, allowing phrases that evoke memories of a happier life to land with neither irony nor an obvious attempt at emotional manipulation. Her flexible instrumentation, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, is by turns insistent, warm and oddly hopeful, with filigrees of solo violin in traditionally Hebraic intervals. Surprisingly, the minimal orchestration provides enough support for all the forces, and the texture mirrors that of the voices, alternating between collective experience and private musings. Mezzo Angela Niederloh sings with passion and rich tone both in Vedem and in Fathers, a song cycle based on poems by Anne Ranasinghe and David Vogel. It is yet another fine example of Laitman's gracious vocal writing and particular sensitivity to the complicated emotions that any reflection on the Holocaust is bound to conjure.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER