Sunday, Jan. 27, was Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, an appropriate occasion for the Music at Kohl Mansion series in Burlingame to host the Music of Remembrance Ensemble.
This chamber group from Seattle has remembered the Holocaust through music for 20 years, playing works by or relating to Jews and others targeted by the Nazi regime. All the musicians who played on Sunday are also members of the Seattle Symphony. They gave gutsy and determined performances of high technical accomplishment.
All six of the works played at Sunday’s concert are by Jewish composers. Four of these composers had their lives snuffed out in Nazi concentration camps, and a fifth was a refugee who fled the Nazis. Two of the four works by interred composers were actually written while their authors were inmates at the camp at Terezin in what is now the Czech Republic. This transport camp to the extermination centers was disguised by the Nazis as a model settlement, and musical activities were encouraged. What’s amazing is how much good music came out of these conditions.
Gideon Klein’s String Trio is the kind of work listeners might expect from a composer who probably suspected his days were numbered. It’s energetic without being high-spirited, with the seeds of Czech folk dance hiding deeply behind its spiky modernism in the mode of Janácek or Bartók. The central movement, a set of slow variations on a Moravian folk song, is somber and lyrical, alternating with brief but brisker variation.
The other work from Terezin, a “Dance” by Hans Krása, is also for string trio and is written in a similar musical language. Considering the circumstances of its composition, it’s almost disturbing how good-humored a work this is, raw and jumpy in its rhythmic energy though it also is. There are hints of the rhythms of popular music in this lively and active short work.
Two other composers who died in the Holocaust are represented by pre-war works. Erwin Schulhoff was Czech, like Klein and Krása, wrote Five Pieces for String Quartet inspired by specific dances. All employ the characteristic rhythms of their inspirations, from the grace of a waltz through the slinkiness and stutter of a tango to the buzz and sudden emphases of a tarantella. They also have a hard-edged quality shared with Klein’s Trio.
Dick Kattenburg was a young Dutch composer who, like Anne Frank, spent the war years in hiding until he was arrested just three months before the Franks. Based on his “Escapades” for two violins, played here by the husband-and-wife team of Artur Girsky and Natasha Bazhanov, he was a remarkable composer with a great gift for pastiche. The pseudo-medieval canonic harmonies in his opening Intrada, the 18th-century counterpoint variations in his Romance, and his openly cheeky and jaunty concluding Rumba were all utterly charming.
Miecyslaw Weinberg, the same age as Kattenburg, was a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis, fleeing to the Soviet Union, where he became in turn nearly a victim of Stalinist terror until rescued at the risky behest of his mentor, Dmitri Shostakovich. He went on to a long career as a distinguished composer, but his Aria for string quartet, offered here, is an early work from his wartime exile period. Predating his work with Shostakovich, it has no influence from that composer. It’s soft and gently romantic.
The concert concluded with music to accompany the 1920 German expressionist silent film on Jewish legend, “The Golem.” Written in klezmer style in 1996 by the postwar Israeli composer Betty Olivero, it features much virtuoso wailing from Laura DeLuca’s clarinet, accompanied by string quartet.
In keeping with this concert’s theme of music as remembrance and healing, next season at Music at Kohl Mansion will feature the Violins of Hope, a collection of instruments preserved from their use by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. They will play in a new song cycle by Jake Heggie on the theme of liberation at Kohl, and will also be heard in concerts featuring a variety of ethnic music.