The Terezin Music Foundation’s annual Gala once again presented an important message in the context of a concert. Thanks to excellent filmography and sound quality, technology allowed a much-needed tradition to continue in an online manifestation. And unlike an ephemeral, one-time event, the concert will continue to stream HERE until the end of the year.
When this concert was being planned, anxiety about the global pandemic prevailed along with political angst which called to mind the horrors of 1930’s Germany and the incremental degradations that led to an otherwise civilized country instigating the unspeakable acts of the Holocaust and starting the Second World War. Falling as it did on the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938, the 31st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two days after a happier outcome than the 2016 election, this concert seemed linked to history while providing some much needed spiritual balm as, post-election, we start to leave our storm shelters and look forward to a better time in this country.
“I am thinking of when we will meet again”, a wistful line taken from the words of a song by Pavel Haas was the evening’s theme, at a time when the world of the performing arts has been devastated in the past six months, with few live performances happening anywhere. This privation has taken a deep toll on musicians and audience members alike, but makes so much more real the sentiment expressed by Viktor Ullman about the people at Terezin, “Our desire for culture was equal to our will to live”.
The fundamental, life giving necessity for musicians to make music with each other has been made manifest when we are not able to do it. We can feel in our bones what it must have been like to need to make music in the most appalling places, such as Terezin or Auschwitz. To make music when it has been denied to you is a political act of resistance, sanity, and survival.
The opener, Hot Sonate (Jazz Sonata) for Saxophone and Piano featured the smooth and liquid sound of Philipp Stäudlin on saxophone, ably partnered by pianist Yoko. The composer was Erwin Schulhoff, an ardent Communist,who once set the Communist Manifesto to music. Clear influences of both Schullhoff’s teacher Debussy, and the jazz music of the day, inform the four-movement work. The first movement bears a strong resemblance to the carefree, afternoon at a café mood of Golliwog’s Cake Walk. In the second the piano and sax converse, each making insistent statements, sometimes playing over each other, until finally they play in unison, devolving back into more spirited exchanges, which makes you wonder if the argument was resolved. The third movement sounds like the soundtrack to a noir film in which sinewy sax lines and insistent, menacing piano chords punctuate the line…you can almost see the pulled-down fedora on someone walking through pools of light in a dark, wet alleyway. The cheerful and upbeat final movement shares harmonies that sound middle Eastern at times. A deeply romantic and melodic middle section yields back to the upbeat theme. This piece is highly recommended to sax players.
Pavel Hass wrote “A Sleepless Night” in Terezin in 1944, the year the Nazi’s murdered him. A few years earlier, the Nuremburg Laws forced the promising young composer, a student of Janacek, to divorce his non-Jewish wife. He was in one of the first transports to the “model concentration camp” at Terezin, where he took an active role in what became the rich cultural life that developed in the midst of the starvation and privations of the camp. Haas composed many of what are considered his best works while imprisoned. This poignant song contains the line “I am thinking of when we will meet again”, surely a note of longing to his wife and child, which takes on the pain of separation in this time, which we feel for family from whom we are separated by the pandemic. Francis Rogers, tenor, and Yoko Hagino, piano, beautifully conveyed the message of the music.
In addition to the informative narrative that TMF Director Mark Ludwig provides between pieces, one of the very moving aspects of any TMF Gala is the awards given to outstanding individuals who have embodied compassion, education, or understanding, sometimes locally, sometimes on an international stage. This event co-honored former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and psychiatrist, educator, and survivor Anna Ornstein. The Secretary, who lost family members at Terezin, spoke about how she discovered her heritage and passed this knowledge on to her family. As is well known, the Secretary often wears distinctive brooches to honor occasions. This time she wore a blue enameled violin, and spoke very movingly about the grandparents she never knew.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson then gave a thoughtful, passionate, and meaningful performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No 23 in F Minor, op. 57, “Appassionata.”
TMF connects the composers lost in the Holocaust with an ongoing tradition by commissioning works in their honor. Had they lived, those composers would have been the teachers who shared what they had learned from their mentors. By liberating such works from the past, TMF places them within the steady stream of culture.
Milad Yousufi’s In Search of Home for alto saxophone, violin, piano, and doubek drum and tenor, set to Rumi’s “The Song of the Reed,” resulted from a TMF commission. Yousufi was born in Afghanistan in 1995 during the civil war there. Under Taliban rule, music was completely banned. Nonetheless, Yousufi painted a piano keyboard on paper so that he could practice. His remarkable journey is a testament to the power of music to sustain people in dire circumstances.
When Taliban rule collapsed, he took every opportunity to study both music and art. At age 12 he was teaching painting and attending Kabul’s one music school, soon winning a competition to study in Germany. He returned to Afghanistan, and when the Afghan Youth Orchestra was formed, becoming its pianist and first Afghan conductor. Eventually he won a scholarship to Mannes School for Music and has composed Afghan-influenced music for the New York Philharmonic among others.
The very satisfying world premiere performance of this work given by Francis Rogers, tenor; Catherine French, violin; Philipp Stäudlin, alto sax; Yoko Hagino, piano; and James Gwin, doubek drum showed Yousufi’s musical language to be richly romantic. His extensive use of harmonic minor, syncopated rhythms and the doubek drum gave a middle eastern flavor.
After co-honoree Anna Ornstein received her Terezin Legacy Award, we heard Viktor Ullman’s choral work, Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet), which he penned in Terezin in 1943. David Hodgkins directed Coro Allegro’s “virtual” chorus in which members recorded their parts separately, before a computer combined them. The beautiful, simple prayer calls on the prophet Elijah to return.
The evening concluded with “We Shall Overcome,” as arranged by Brother Dennis Slaughter, and included the Boston Community Gospel Choir directed by Brother Slaughter, Coro Allegro, and the Brookline High School Camerata Choir directed by Michael Driscoll. With Mark Ludwig quoting Anne Frank’s directive to “Be Kind, have courage” in our ears, this music joyously rounded out an evening filled with a wide range of emotions. Part of the responsibility of being human is to honor those who went before us, to cherish those who live beside us now, and to pass on hope and opportunity for the ones coming after. TMF fulfills all these missions amply through its thoughtful presentations which go far beyond concerts.
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.