By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE – At a time when genocide, ethnic cleansing, anti-immigrant attacks, and religious extremism are on the rise worldwide, the work of Music of Remembrance (MOR), the Seattle-based chamber music organization that has spent 19 years keeping memories of the Holocaust alive through music, seems more important than ever. Of special interest in MOR’s final concert of the season on May 21 was the latest of its 21 music commissions, the world premiere of Armenian-American Mary Kouyoumdjian’s to open myself, to scream (2017).
Part of a two-hour program at Seattle’s Illsey Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall in Benaroya Recital Hall entitled “Ceija,” Kouvoumdjian’s 26-minute work illuminated the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Roma people (Gypsies). The piece’s inspiration was the art and writings of Austrian-Romani concentration camp survivor Ceija Stojka (1933-2013).
Stojka was less than 10 years old when her father was murdered by the Nazis. Shortly thereafter, she, her mother, and her four brothers were transported to the Gypsy camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Given that the Nazis considered all children under age 16 unfit for slave labor and sent them immediately to the gas chamber, Stojka’s mother told her to claim she was a 16-year-old midget who could perform hard labor.
Somehow, the Nazis bought the little girl’s story. While spending 18 months in three concentration camps, young Stojka did everything from scrounging for roots in the forest to using the corpses of the dead to keep herself warm before she, her mother, and three of her siblings were liberated from Bergen-Belsen.
Many decades later, when she began painting at age 56, she focused a large body of her work on the Holocaust. At roughly the same time, she published the first of three autobiographies. Among her writings is the statement that inspired the final movement of Kouyoumdjian’s work:
“Auschwitz is only sleeping. If the world does not change now, if the world does not open its doors and windows, if it does not build peace, true peace, so that my great grandchildren have a chance to live in this world, then I cannot explain why I survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Ravensbrook.”
Divided into four interconnected parts — “I dream of living,” “We were ashamed,” “In the shadows of a smoking crematorium,” and “Auschwitz is only sleeping” — to open myself, to scream reflects Stojka’s harrowing experience in captivity. The electroacoustic, multi-media endeavor combined live performances by five members of the MOR instrumental ensemble with pre-recorded/processed electronic samples of their playing plus the composer’s voice. Animated visual design by Syrian-American artist Kevork Mourad, rooted in Stojka’s paintings, was the music’s constant companion.
As in every work in which he performed, veteran Seattle Symphony violinist and original MOR member Mikhail Shmidt was the star of the show. Gifted with a dark and meaty tone that reflects the Moscow-born artist’s roots, Shmidt has every idiomatic Jewish and Eastern European inflection in his blood. With playing that forever touches the heart and, in this work, cried out in pain and despair, Shmidt’s artistry was even apparent amid a very loud, amplified-to-the-point-of-assault electronic score that my companion characterized as “one continuous scream without variation.”
Amid Shmidt’s cries, Laura DeLuca’s clarinet wails, Jonathan Green’s double bass low moans, Walter Gray’s cello, and Alexander White’s trumpet, their electronic Doppelgänger made a huge clamor as it seemingly battled for dominance. At first the music felt as propulsive as it was penetrating. But as the racket continued, the experience seemed less concerned with beauty than with communicating the unending visceral, emotional, and spiritual assault and pain of concentration camp life. As tempting as it is to ascribe the noisy presentation to the weaknesses of the built-in sound system, the presence of the estimable, Grammy Award-winning Dmitriy Lipay as sound engineer suggests that we heard (and could not discern amid the din) precisely what he and Kouyoumdjian wished to present.
Mourad’s animations, projected on a large screen throughout the performance, followed a set formula whose repetition limited its impact: Begin with key elements of a painting and then slowly enlarge or move them while adding other elements and colors until, presumably, the actual painting becomes visible.
Though the images were eloquent in and of themselves, and became more so as additional elements of Stojka’s work emerged, it was hard to know exactly where Mourad’s intervention came to an end and Stojka’s art emerged in final form. Nor could animation adequately substitute for the three-dimensionality of Stojka’s technique, which incorporated cardboard, dough, and glass into her paintings.
The first half of the program showcased the work of three Austrian-Jewish composers who chose to flee Vienna rather than face death. Karl Weigl’s gorgeous “Revelation,” from Three Intermezzi (1941), tugged at the heart, with Shmidt’s ever-eloquent longing balanced by cellist Mara Finkelstein’s waves of consolation. Far lighter was Hans Gál’s carefree Variations on a Viennese “Heurigen” Melody (1914), written while old Vienna was still intact.
Amid these came five vocal works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold: “Marietta’s Lied” from Die tote Stadt (1920) and four of his Songs on Shakespearean Texts. “Marietta’s Lied” was presented in a rather strange arrangement by Bengt Forsberg that disappointingly consigned the entire middle section of the aria/duet to a five-person ensemble with MOR founder Mina Miller on piano. The aria ended with a bizarre, prolonged upwards glissando that, like that extra dollop of whip cream your inner voice warned you not to eat, was best forgotten.
Korngold reconstructed many of his Shakespeare Songs from memory after he headed to Hollywood in 1938 and the Nazis seized his home and property. The program’s group of four strophic songs seemed surprisingly conventional in structure and harmony and lacked the heartfelt resonance that makes the theme of Korngold’s early opera so memorable.
The soloist, veteran San Francisco Opera mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, graced the lot with generous, rich tone and softly touched, unexpectedly sweet top notes. Especially winning was the obvious delight with which she delivered the mildly charming “Under the Greenwood Tree.” While the evenness of Cook’s vocal production and the quality of her tone remain intact, the vibrato has sadly begun to widen in the midrange. Although not a major distraction at this point, it does inject colors unrelated to the music at hand.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes (1949) proved a tangy, cheer-inducing tour de force for Shmidt and pianist Jessica Choe. Equally successful was the world premiere of Olivier Wevers’ choreography to Osvaldo Golijov’s Lullaby and Doina (2001), again performed by Shmidt and Choe. One of six dance commissions since MOR’s inception, it showcased Liane Aung and Karl Watson movingly responding to Golijov’s increasingly animated music. As an evocation of the fate of European Jews and Gypsies in the middle 20th century, it brought the afternoon to a vibrant and uplifting close, reflecting survival amid oppression.
MOR reprises to open myself, to scream at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on May 24. The remainder of that program features Cook and members of the ensemble in works by Hans Krása, Lori Laitman, Betty Olivero, and others. Given the extra liveliness of SFCOM’s Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, Kouyoumdjian’s work may fare differently in that larger space.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.