The Terezin Music Foundation, which honors the memory of victims of the Holocaust through promotion of music old and new, celebrated its 2018 gala in Symphony Hall Monday evening, with a dinner and a concert in which pianist Simone Dinnerstein gave an hour-plus recital after a string quartet from the Boston Symphony opening the musical portion of the evening. The occasion honored Barbara and Steve Grossman, long associated with Jewish philanthropy in Boston, with a Legacy Award. Projections above the stage revealed some of the elements of musical survival in the “Paradise Ghetto” in Terezin (Theresienstadt), including a drawing of a “secret piano” that helped to sustain hope during the darkest years, with the shadow of the death camps ever in the background.
The annual gala, organized around the theme “Sanctuary,” continued its ten-year tradition of commissioning. Refuge for string quartet by Milad Yousufi, a 23-year-old native of Afghanistan, began the program; the composer’s separate text, including a refrain, “I am a refugee, / I am the wind,” appeared simultaneously on the screen above the stage. A piquantly rhythmic dance in c major and minor, with a Rumanian-Middle-Eastern flavor, and a motive of augmented-sixth chords at beginning and end, it unfolded in mostly regular four-bar phrases. The very idea of an Afghan composer impresses us, since music of any kind was and often still is entirely banned by the Taliban occupation in the “graveyard of empires.” The handout states: “He is the first Afghan-influenced western classical composer,” and notes that studies Yousufi studies piano at the Mannes School with Simone Dinnerstein. (The notes mentioned Catherine French as the first violinist but remained silent on who substituted for her.)
Ellis Ludwig-Leone responded to another commission with Sanctuary; its three movements each took inspiration from a painting which we saw projected. “The Yellow Pool” (painting by Anne Leone, the composer’s mother) had a rocking, sarabande-like left-hand accompaniment with splash chords in the right hand; “Gregory’s Party” (painting by Simon Dinnerstein, the pianist’s father), ran almost entirely in the treble register, ostinati with scales, often resembling the playfulness of children banging freely on the piano; and in “Sanctuary” (painting by Daniel Ludwig, the composer’s father), a plain, tonal, hymnlike texture and wistful melody prevailed, offset by bird calls and treble screeches, in the most interesting and winning of the three sections.
The remainder of the evening belonged to Dinnerstein, who played with exquisite singing tone throughout. This loving approach to the piano carried Schubert’s great Sonata in B-flat major (D 960) to excellent effect, with a full complement of limpid warmth that occasionally rose to fortissimo drama. One can get lost in this sonata full of dreams, and I saw a number of the audience with their eyes closed, seemingly from total absorption and transfiguration.
Two other short pieces filled out the Dinnerstein’s portion: Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 and Philip Glass’s Etude No. 2. Satie’s ostinato style belongs to the ancestry of Glass’s minimalism, and he wrote this Gnossienne, like the others, without barlines, while displaying an insistent regularity of texture. Dinnerstein chose to project its melodic line ultra-slowly and with abundant rubato, even with exaggerated expressiveness, far more than is warranted for this kind of music; one might have thought she was playing Chopin. Glass’s piece, relentlessly based on a four-note upward motif, B-C-E-G, never modulated at all. For a brief encore, Dinnerstein offered another Etude (No. 8, in F Minor, sort of) from Glass’s series; with all its repetitions, it nevertheless gave the impression of a page from a Chopin etude torn in half from top to bottom before ending on a half cadence.
Notwithstanding Simone Dinnerstein’s lovely playing, and her amiably affected visual gestures, the concert as a whole left a curiously unsettled impression, from Satie’s textural immobility to Glass’s melodic immobility to the repetitive phrases of the premiered works, and eventually to the sublime repetition that dominates so many of Schubert’s works of his final year. “Constant repetition of a rhythmic figure, as in popular music, lends a popular touch to many Schubertian melodies. But their real nobility manifests itself in their rich melodic contour.” (Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, page 27.) This impression may have been intended to serve as actual “sanctuary” from the daily repressions of Terezin, with the audience imagining itself finding momentary refuge in the attic to hear the other-worldly “secret piano,” as Mark Ludwig, executive director of the TMF, invited us to do. Did it succeed? As individual pieces, considerably; as an entire program, perhaps not.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.