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May 11, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 19
 
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The pink triangle comes alive at holocaust remembrance concert
The pink triangle comes alive at holocaust remembrance concert
Music of Remembrance, founded in 1998 by Seattleite Mina Miller, is "dedicated to the preservation, understanding and performance of music related to the Holocaust." From its beginning, Miller has wanted to find a way to recognize in its musical presentations the stories of how homosexuals suffered during and after this disaster. Three years ago, she found a way when openly Gay composer Jake Heggie (operas 'The End of the Affair' and 'Dead Man Walking') agreed to take on this daunting project.

Before I go on to critique the resulting 'For a Look or a Touch,' allow me to ask you a question: Have you ever been to a concert where the artists almost embarrassed you with their intensity? Where "blew you away" or "knocked you out" didn't quite express how totally engaged you became with the performers? Well, that's what we experienced nearly all evening at this May 7th concert at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall. Music of Remembrance managed to get artists of such excellence that ordinary concerts seem tame in comparison.

'Shema' by Simon Sargon (b. 1938 in Bombay) began the program with five dramatic songs set to poems by Primo Levi, who was liberated from Auschwitz and later committed suicide in 1987. A group of instrumentalists (piano, flute, clarinet, and cello) accompanied soprano Maureen McKay. If this was the least intense experience of the evening, perhaps the lack of supratitles or sufficient light with which to read the translations was to blame. (Ms. McKay's Italian could also use some help.) But the music was matched by the excellence of the performers. Maureen McKay sang with expressive phrasing and effective dynamics, showing an especially attractive voice when singing softly.

"Audaciously original" composer Erwin Schulhoff (born 1894, Prague; died 1942 at Wulzburg concentration camp) would have loved the outrageously dramatic and joyous performance given his 'Duo' by violinist Mikhail Shmidt and cellist Amos Yang. These brave performers attacked the extreme virtuosity of this work with an energy that made each difficulty a cause for celebration. Schulhoff wrote, "&in my consciousness I am incredibly earthly, even bestial&" His music was banned by the Nazis as "degenerate" and is only recently being re-discovered. This performance of 'Duo' made me hunger for more!

No less marvelous was 'Lullaby and Doina' by Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960, Argentina). The ensemble consisted of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. Derived from his music for Sally Potter's film 'The Man Who Cried,' this work is about a love between a Jewish woman and a Gypsy, a love forbidden of course by the Nazis. Gypsies were also hauled off to camps and murdered. In the wondrous textures we heard here, I was startled to hear one of the most beautiful themes from a tenor aria in Bizet's 'Pearl Fishers'!

Jake Heggie's and librettist Gene Scheer's 'For a Look or a Touch' carried the intensity to new heights after intermission. (A look or a touch by two men was all it took to get arrested by the Nazis.) The interview with Heggie and Scheer before the show gave great insight into how the work came into fruition.

It's basically a true story of two 19-year-olds who were torn apart when Manfred Lewin was taken away and murdered with his entire family at a camp. His lover, Gad Beck, who is still living, is shown as an octogenarian who has struggled to forget the pain of those days. Julian Patrick, in a speaking part, made me cry as he acted by part of Beck, as he is visited by the beautiful ghost of the still-nineteen Manfred. Young hunk, baritone Morgan Smith (Don Giovanni recently at Seattle Opera) sang with melting beauty as he begged Beck to remember their joy and profound love. Heggie included elements of jazz and swing to evoke the Gay freedoms of pre-Nazi Berlin.

The senior Julian Patrick and dazzling youth of Morgan Smith (not to mention his consummate talent as a singing actor) were perfect for this story of how Beck came at last to embrace his memories. Librettist Scheer and Heggie succeeded utterly in using Manfred Lewin's journal, along with elements from the great documentary film 'Paragraph 175' (narrated by Rupert Everett), to make a dramatically gripping narrative that I'll never forget.

Music of Remembrance is hoping to tour this work next year and hopes to see it also performed all over.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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