IN: Reviews

Celebrating Defiance


Viktor Ullman and Marthe before the holocaust.

The Terezin Music Foundation’s annual gala concert at Symphony Hall helps keep alive the memory and music of artists interned at the “model concentration camp” in Terezin, Czechoslovakia prior to being murdered, primarily at Auschwitz. Additionally, the Foundation commissions new works in honor of these composers and others lost, providing a way for their creative efforts to move forward while still honoring the past.

Overture for Small Orchestra (Terezin. 1943-44) by Hans Krasa opened Monday’s concert in an especially poignant moment. In 1923, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony played Krasa’s Symphony (1923) in this very hall. Executive Director Mark Ludwig displayed an original program from the 1926/27 BSO season which contained that work, which was broadcast over the radio at the time; Krasa and a friend climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower to hear it via shortwave. How little anyone could have imagined under what circumstances Krasa’s music would return to the Hall some 93 years later.

When Krasa wrote the overture, he had only strings, two clarinets, two trumpets, and piano, on hand. The excellent musicians with first-rate instruments, whom Andris Nelsons conducted gave a far more polished performance than it likely received in Terezin. The work was bouncy and cheerful, with a jazzy feel until it ended in a nervous and interrupted chord. Not inappropriate.

Andre Previn’s Quintet for Horn and Strings (2018), commissioned by the TMF through the Omer Foundation, was the final work which Previn completed. Its language absorbs the best from the composer’s love of jazz and popular music, as well as his extensive life as a conductor. It opened with a warm horn and cello duo, and often had a conversational feel, as though the groups of instruments were holding an intense and spirited discussion, sometimes with just a few instruments, sometimes with the whole group, sometimes with an individual instrument making a statement. The second movement featured a disjunct horn solo with wide intervals, that could have sounded jagged, but BSO horn player Michael Winter’s technique and musicianship transmitted it as a soaring, truly beautiful melody. The third movement’s extremely complicated rhythms might have failed in the hands of less outstanding musicians; instead it danced.

A prose poem superbly performed by Vytas Baksys (piano) and Annette Miller (narrator), with deft direction by Mark Ludwig, Viktor Ullman’s The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke (Terezin, 1944), especially in its piano part, seemed very much like the composer’s solitary improvisation on the story. Miller’s narration sounded spot on, at times dramatic, at times tender or cajoling. But the set design by Daniel Ludwig provided the real piece de resistance. Very slow and subtle shifting of light and colors illuminated abstract images, flowers, trees, landscapes, mysterious figures, and emotional color swashes which appeared in turn, with a kaleidoscopic poetry that paired with the story of the text. It was a remarkable thing to hear and watch together.

“By no means did we sit weeping by the waters of Babylon. Our will to create was commensurate with our will to live,” Ullman wrote. TMF allows these artists to continue to speak to us despite past efforts to silence them. Our very listening, both celebrating and defying, constitutes the greatest gift we can give both them and ourselves.

Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.

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  1. Thank you so much for the kind comments about the third (Rilke, Ullman) piece. As the artist who created the animation, I appreciated your enthusiastic response very much. I would like to note, however, that my name is Daniel Ludwig (not David) and to request, if possible, that you make the change in the archived review. Thanks so much.

    Comment by Daniel Ludwig — December 3, 2019 at 4:33 pm

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