By Mark Rudio
May 24, 2015 - Through performances, recordings, and the commission of new works, the mission of Seattle’s Music of Remembrance is to remember musicians whose lives were impacted or lost during the Holocaust. The organization, led by Artistic Director Mina Miller, came to San Francisco last week for the first time to present a concert program of new and Holocaust-era works as part of Temple Emanu-El‘s concert series in its Martin Meyer Sanctuary. The nearly full house on hand witnessed a complete artistic and communal success, and if the quality of this concert was indicative of the organization’s capabilities and vision, I hope this visit was the first of many to come.
At the centerpiece were the local premieres of two commissions by the organization. The first half featured Farewell, Auschwitz, with music composed by Jake Heggie and lyrics by his frequent librettist Gene Scheer, adapting the poetry of Krystyna Zywulska, written while she was in the concentration camp of the title. It’s a companion piece to the duo’s Another Sunrise, which is about what Zywulska endured in the concentration camp. Farewell, Auschwitz uses her own words to bring the listener further inside Krystyna’s experiences. Heggie roots the music in the era from the beginning, using strains of big band jazz and blues. The opening prologue had the three singers– baritone Robert Orth, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, and soprano Ava Pine– humorously (and with surprising effect) covering their mouths while singing to replicate the jazzy sounds of brass instruments. Scheer’s adaptation of Zywulska’s poetry wisely lets the setting impart most of the drama until the final song and the result is an intimate peek into Zywulska’s concerns, experiences, hopes, and fantasies– as if the listener is present with her, listening to her speak and observing what’s going on around her. Singing together and taking solo turns, the trio displayed a keen ability to find the drama, irony, and poignancy of the lyrics while steering clear of the maudlin or melodramatic, joining together at one point to create a Manhattan Transfer-style chorus over a chugging rhythm played by the strings during “Miss Ziutka,” a song where Zywulska describes a determined fellow inmate. At times Heggie’s music lets the instruments portray Zywulska’s despair and loneliness, most effectively during a haunting clarinet solo that accompanied Pine during “Irenka,” but he avoids sentimentality. The music of the finale, “Farewell, Auschwitz,” defies the horrific reality expressed in the words, winding up to a climax reminiscent of dancehall-like cabaret number that sings to the invincibility of the human spirit.
The second half of the concert featured After Life, a one-act opera by composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason, in which a posthumous meeting between Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso is interrupted by a nameless young woman who enters the scene and reminds them of the millions of others who suffered a different fate during the war. The inspiration for the opera was The Steins Collect, the 2011 exhibit at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art that looked at Leo and Gertrude Stein’s art collection and the circle of people it drew into their orbit. In her introduction Miller reminded the audience of some of Stein’s problematic history which tends to get glossed over these days (and was notably absent in the exhibit), namely her conservative political views that led her to support Franco during the Spanish Civil War as well as the Nazi-backed Vichy government in France.
Set in a room containing a number of recognizable paintings, including Picasso’s portrait of Stein, After Life opens with Picasso (Orth) surprisng Stein (Cook) when he enters the room. Their conversation quickly devolves into argument, then debate, and finally accusations. These exchanges are compellingly written and often humorous, if not exactly even-handed (Picasso fares much better than Stein), and greatly enlivened by the singers’ remarkable physical resemblances to their real-life counterparts. It’s such an engaging exchange that I found myself having to deliberately pull my attention from it in order to try to pay attention to the music , but quickly decided against doing so because Cipullo’s writing for the singers is so organic to the characters and scene it’s close to invisible. The back and forth between Stein and Picasso goes on for some time before Pine enters the scene as a girl who once sold a flower to Stein. The girl recounts the moment and what happened subsequently, and the tone of the opera changes.
The girl’s presence strips away the artists’ bluster and self-serving justifications, drawing the scene down to its essence– what was important, what was lost, what really matters, and what endures, and that while she wasn’t a famous person, she too, mattered, and was alive. Pine has tremendous presence, a necessity for anyone in this role, without which it night have felt like a disruption, and she held her own against Cook and Orth, though a couple of high notes sounded cut off earlier than my ear expected. However, this hardly mattered– the denouement was compelling and I would be eager to experience more of Cipullo’s work. Eric Parce directed and Stilian Kirov conducted a five-piece ensemble of members of the Seattle Symphony with fluid transparency.
The first half of the concert began with Robert Dauber’s Serenata, a romantic piece for violin and piano the 20-year-old composer wrote in Terezin, where he was a cellist in the orchestra. Dauber died in Dachau three years later of typhus, and his only surviving composition shows a skillful hand at the romanticism that lingered well into the 20th Century. David Beigelman’s Dybbuk Dances followed. Originally written for solo violin, here it was performed in an arrangement for violin, clarinet, and double-bass, performed by Laura DeLuca, Mikhail Schmidt, and Jonathan Green.
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