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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 31, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 22
Music of Remembrance commemorates the life and work of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti
Arts & Entertainment
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Music of Remembrance commemorates the life and work of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

MUSIC OF REMEMBRANCE
THE PARTING
COMPOSER: TOM CIPULLO
LIBRETTIST: DAVID MASON
BENAROYA HALL
ILLSLEY BALL NORDSTROM
RECITAL HALL
May 19


I grew up in post-WWII America where every teenager learned the word 'Holocaust,' just as they learned the name 'Hitler.' We grew up with stories about how the men in our families volunteered or were drafted, how the women bought war bonds, shopped with ration stamps, and flattened tin cans for the war effort. Years later my grandmother still served 'rinky-dum-ditty' for lunch - soda crackers with Cheese-whiz-and-ketchup sauce - a nostalgic make-do meal for those who had lived through pinched and dangerous times.

But it wasn't until the war ended - when film crews entered the concentration camps and the Nuremberg trials began - that the full horror of Nazi crimes against humanity were exposed. Though the Jews of Europe were the primary target for death marches and gas chambers, so were the disabled, the 'gypsies,' the mentally ill, and the 'deviants' - homosexuals and lesbians.

Today, however, as the last WWII veterans pass away, young people are less and less aware of the Holocaust and its lessons. It's especially ironic that as political attention focuses on new forms of rising fascism and threats to legal protections for women, LGBTQ+, refugees and the free press, the Holocaust is falling out of school curriculums and fading in common knowledge. A recent study found that 11% of all adults today have not heard of the Holocaust, and that two-thirds of millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was. The 41% of millennials in the study who are aware of Nazi crimes vastly underestimated the number of Jews killed as two million, rather than the six million who were actually slaughtered. [1]

All the more reason, then, to applaud the work of Music of Remembrance, a Seattle-based organization founded by Artistic Director Mina Miller, which seeks '...to remember the Holocaust through music.' Now in its twentieth year, MOR commissions internationally famous artists to create new works of instrumental music, dance, and opera '...that give voice to those who have been victims of exclusion and persecution.' [2]

The truly impressive list of newly commissioned works by leading artists includes some of Seattle's best-known artistic citizens: composer and former conductor of the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwartz; choreographer, former PNB star and founder of Whim W'Him, Olivier Wevers; choreographer and Director of Seattle Spectrum Dance Theater, Donald Byrd; founder of Northwest Sinfonietta and Music Director of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra, Christophe Chagnard; Cornish College of the Arts Professor of Dance, Pat Hon.

MOR has also commissioned works from artists all over the world: composers Jake Heggie, Keiko Fujiie, Thomas Pasatieri, and Aharon Harlap among others. The ability of a relatively small organization to attract the best living artists of our times is a testament to the importance and gravity of MOR's mission. By bringing more than 30 new works into being, all focused on the human tragedy of persecution, MOR is doing its part to help all of us remember the dreadful cost of complacency in the face of fascism and legalized hatred.

This year's commission is a moving reminder of that cost. A new chamber opera, The Parting, by composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason, tells the story of Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet who was murdered on a Nazi death march. Radnóti, now considered one of Hungary's greatest poets, was conscripted into forced labor because of his Jewish heritage. After three extended periods in labor camps his health was broken and the Nazis shot him and threw him into a mass grave. His wife, Fanni, was able to locate the grave a year later, after the war in Europe ended. When Radnóti's body was exhumed, there, by some miracle, was a notebook containing his final poems hidden in the pocket of his coat. Librettist David Mason has used these poems and Fanni's journals to write a scenario of the young couple's final night together - May 19, 1944. Seventy years later, to the day, an appreciative and fascinated audience saw the world premiere of this very dramatic, very beautiful and moving work.

There are only three characters in The Parting - Miklós, sung by baritone Michael Mayes, Fanni, sung by soprano Laura Strickling, and Death sung by mezzo soprano Catherine Cook. All three singers were superlative, filling the intimate space with Tom Cipullo's elegant and nuanced score. Only six musicians formed the orchestra under the fine baton of Alastair Willis, but the music built a challenging spectrum of expression, from mystery, fear, and anxiety, to love. One of many beautiful moments came when the couple sang a duet of Miklós' poem 'After April Rain.' It was as melodic and joyful as the poem itself - while still expressing the subtext of impending separation:

'As happy, with a woman on my chest, as when the sun shines after April rain, I shout! and straight away, clean-rinsed in light, my voice rings, like that bird's up to his middle, now, in the crystal puddle.'

The character of Death - a figure Miklós and Fanni can sense but not see - comes out of a long tradition of personifications of Death. Think of the Grim Reaper with his scythe, or of Dürer's 'Pale Rider' on an emaciated horse, or of all the skeletal representations of death as momenti mori. Yet Mason and Cipullo have cleverly made this grim reaper into a sympathetic woman who is in love with poetry. Since she knows the couple's sufferings as well as their futures, she reassures Miklós that 'I am the friend who knows you will wake to the world' while also calling on him to 'Use the time you've got!' As Miklós bends to his work on their final night, Fanni laments 'Why is there always another? I want to be with him alone.' Is she referring to Death, who is haunting them? Or is she referring to Miklós' need to write and write and write, because he knows his time is almost up? The poignancy of young people having to decide whether to spend their last hours in service to Art or Love, weaves through the opera like smoke - sometimes, thanks to Cipullo's enticing music, like a dark fog that transforms into incense.

Cipullo's compositional style is to serve the story at all times rather than to give himself a spotlight. His music never distracts or shows off, but weaves seamlessly into the development of the characters and the rise and fall of the drama. He is especially generous to singers, giving them intense passages and gorgeous moments while honoring each individual's vocal expression. I kept thinking, as I listened to the natural interweaving of the three characters, that singers must love to work with Tom Cipullo.

While The Parting was the main attraction of the evening, MOR also honored young Hungarian composers who were murdered in the Holocaust by opening with a concert of three pieces written by musicians who did not live to fulfill their early promise. We heard 'Duo' by Lázló Weiner - a student of Kodály, who tried unsuccessfully to intercede for Weiner; 'Air' by Sándor Vándor, a choral and orchestral composer who led a choir in Budapest until deported and murdered in a labor camp; and 'Serenade for String Trio' by Sándor Kuti, who was the student of Ernst von Dohnányi and close friend of Georg Solti. The musicians who presented these works were truly brilliant. Especially impressive were the violinist Mikhail Schmidt and violist Amber Archibald (who, astonishingly, learned her music in four days to replace an ailing musician).

Solti said, about his friend Sándor Kuti, 'I am convinced that had he lived he would have become one of Hungary's greatest composers.' Substitute 'Germany's' or 'Poland's' or 'France's' or 'Italy's' for 'Hungary's', then in place of the word 'composer,' substitute the words 'poet,' 'dancer,' 'novelist,' 'philosopher,' 'violinist,' 'singer,' 'scholar,' 'concert pianist.' We will never fully comprehend the terrible loss to Art and to the world of those murdered in the Holocaust. For that matter, substitute the words 'mother,' father,' 'sister,' brother' - and anyone, millenials included - can begin to understand and remember the appalling human disaster that was the murder of six million innocent Jews and designated 'others.'

With the help of Music of Remembrance and the wonderful new works it brings into the world we can hope to remember fascism at its worst, and push back against the growing threat of fascism in our own day.

[1] '4 in 10 millennials don't know 6 million Jews were killed in Holocaust, study shows'. CBS News, 12 April 2018.

[2] https://www.musicofremembrance.org

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