by PHILIPPA KIRALY November 7, 2016
Every concert Music of Remembrance puts on is sobering and thought provoking. The “Remembrance” part of the title is about not forgetting the appalling treatment by the Nazis of the Jews, gypsies, gays, Slavs, the disabled and anyone who disagreed with them. The word genocide was relatively unknown at that time, but there’s no other word for what happened there and—unfortunately—has happened elsewhere since.
Mina Miller, founder and artistic director of MoR, has dedicated years to unearthing music written by gifted composers killed in the concentration camps, whether they composed there or in prewar years. She’s also encouraged and commissioned modern composers to set to music poetry and words written, hidden in or smuggled out of the camps. Composers such as Jake Heggie, Paul Schoenfield, Thomas Pasatieri and others have responded to her call, and at Sunday’s concert, the featured work was an oratorio by Lori Laitman, “Vedem.”
“Vedem,” which means “in the lead,” was the name a group of teenage boys in the Terezin concentration camp gave to a secret magazine they wrote and illustrated, read aloud to each other every Friday, and kept alive for two full years. Only one boy from Building L417, which housed the magazine’s writers, remained there at the end of the war and he buried some 800 pages of “Vedem” and retrieved it at war’s end. (Most of the other boys ended up in Auschwitz, where they died or were killed.)
Laitman’s oratorio, which takes up half a concert, marries poems by several of the boys to a libretto by David Mason which fills in the gaps about life in L417: the cold, the starvation, the loneliness, the fear, the desperate need for a mother, for love.
Soprano Karen Early Evans and tenor Ross Hauck were joined by several soloists from the Northwest Boychoir which acted as chorus. “Vedem” was first performed at MoR six years ago, but the Boychoir now is a different generation and, according to their music director and conductor of the oratorio, Joseph Crnko, were themselves affected by the words they sang.
The accompaniment is spare: piano (played by Jessica Choe), clarinet (Laura DeLuca), violin (Mikhail Shmidt) and cello (Walter Gray). While the words of the boys’ themselves were in the program Mason’s writing was not, and it was a big help to have all of the words on supertitles.
The oratorio ends with names sung of children murdered, and the words repeated over and over: “Remember us, remember us. We are no different from you.”
Musically, it has an Eastern European feel with a modern flavor, at times moody, reflective of the words including occasional shrieks from the clarinet, and even a snatch from Dvorak’s “Humoresque” for one, rare, ruefully funny poem.
The whole is riveting. No other word for it.
The first half of the program included five short pieces, four by composers whose lives were cut short. Egon Ledec’s haunting “Kyticka,” William HiIsley’s engaging and jaunty “Dance Pieces” for viola and oboe (he was an interned Quaker who survived the war), Dick Katttenburg’s “Romanian Melody,” full of vitality and Hebrew influence (‘Romanian’ was a code word for ‘Hebrew’ here), and two works by Jaroslav Jezek, a Jew who escaped to New York but died in 1942. Jezek had two sides to his music—the serious and avant-garde, as displayed in his Duo for Two Violins, and the jazzy side as in his “Bugatti Steps,” a delightful rag-type work which ended the program’s first half.
These were played in different combinations by musicians from the Seattle Symphony: Shmidt, Gray, DeLuca, violinist Artur Girsky, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi and oboist Mary Lynch, plus Miller herself at the piano. And “Kyticka” was played with conviction, confidence and warmth by a young violinist, Evan Johanson, who won MoR’s David Tonkonogui Memorial Award this year.
Not every work Miller unearths is of even quality, but many are excellent, worthwhile pieces we would never hear otherwise. This concert opened MoR’s 19th season. The next concert, in May, explores the story of Europe’s Roma during the Holocaust in one of two commissions.