Impressive Kristallnacht commemoration in concert by Holocaust Centre and NZ School of Music

Kristallnacht Holocaust Commemoration Concert

Music by Herbert Zipper, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Lori Laitman, Boris Pigovat, Viktor Ullman, Laurence Sherr, Richard Fuchs and Gideon Klein

St James Theatre, upstairs foyer

Wednesday 9 November, 7 pm

Two days short of the marking of the World War I armistice, on 11 November 1918, another event took place in the country that had accepted an armistice, but not defeat, and whose sense of humiliation found expression 15 years later with the take-over of Germany by Hitler and the Nazis.

Evidence of a policy of violence against the Jews arose within days of the Nazis taking power in 1933, and the Röhm Putsch or Night of the Long Knives in June-July 1934 against the SA which Hitler felt had gained too much autonomy, demonstrated his proclivity for murdering perceived rivals. It presaged the wholesale attack on Jews and their homes, synagogues and businesses in November 1938, given the curious title Kristallnacht.

This concert was organised by New Zealand’s Holocaust Centre with its headquarters in the Jewish Centre on Webb Street, Wellington. Its chief aim is to educate children and the public about the Holocaust in particular and genocide wherever it happens, in general. This was the fourth of the planned annual concerts devoted to this subject.

Professor Donald Maurice and Inbal Megiddo of the New Zealand School of Music organised and introduced the concert. It began with the audience being rehearsed to sing the chorus of a Dachaulied, composed for fellow prisoners to sing, by one Herbert Zipper. He had been picked up after the Nazis arrived in Vienna on 12 March 1938 (the Anschluss), and miraculously survived through Dachau, then Buchenwald, and was finally released only soon to fall into Japanese hands, surviving and eventually reaching the United States, where he died in 1997, aged 93.

The song was led by Cantoris under Thomas Nikora and there was some participation by the audience.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919 and he was persecuted by the Nazis but escaped to Minsk during the war; his life changed after he sent his first symphony to Shostakovich who took him under his wing. His early years in the Soviet Union looked promising but increasing anti-semitism through the later 1940s virtually cut off his chances of becoming a professional musician. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 probably saved his life. He remained in the Soviet Union where his works began to be performed by leading musicans such as  Gilels, Leonid Kogan, Kondrashin , Rostropovich and Kurt and Thomas Sanderling.

He died in 1996. By the 1980s some of his works were being performed in other countries – The Portrait in 1983 at the Janácek State Theatre in Brno and at the Bregenz Festival in 2010; by Opera North and at Nancy in 2011.

The Idiot in Mannheim in 2013.

My first awakening to him was through reviews in British and French opera magazines of The Passenger, in 2010, at the Bregenz Festival where it was videoed and released on DVD. The same production was presented in Warsaw by Polish National Opera in 2010, and its UK première, in 2011, was at the English National Opera, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. In 2013, its first German performance was at Karlsruhe; in 2014 in Houston and in 2015 in Chicago and Frankfurt.

In addition, much of his orchestral, piano and chamber music has been recorded.

So now, he is far from neglected. For a sample of recordings of his music, look at the Naxos catalogue:

Here Lucy Gijsbers, accompanied by Nikora played Weinberg’s Cello Sonata No 2 – the first movement. In spite of a certain meandering melodic obscurity, there was palpable emotional energy, momentum and a powerful sense of direction.

Three songs from Vedem, an oratorio by well-known American vocal composer, Lori Laitman, followed; it’s called a Holocaust opera. The songs were sung by Margaret Medlyn with Deborah Rawson on the clarinet and Jian Liu at the piano. Vedem means ‘We lead’ in Czech and it was the name of a magazine written by boys imprisoned at Terezin; the manuscripts were buried and retrieved after the war. Broadly tonal in character, the words and clarinet wove around one another, creating varied emotional experiences: unease, peacefulness, panic.

Boris Pigovat’s name is familiar in New Zealand through Donald Maurice’s friendship with the composer whose Holocaust Requiem for viola and orchestra got its second performance (world-wide) in 2008 in Wellington, from Orchestra Wellington and Maurice on the viola, cementing Maurice’s friendship with the composer. Atoll Records recorded it.

His Strings of Love was written specifically for Archi d’amore Zelanda, which consists of viola d’amore (Maurice), guitar (Jane Curry) and cello (Inbal Megiddo) – all principal tutors of their instruments at the New Zealand School of Music. The viola d’amore is a 14-string violin-sized instrument with seven playing strings and seven sympathetic resonating strings. Pigovat does himself a favour by writing in unpretentious, tonal language, in which the viola carried a big, aching melody, while guitar and cello move meditatively alongside, each instrument thus playing music that is idiomatic and natural to its character.

One of the concentration camp works that has had a notable, almost mainstream life is Viktor Ullman’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung (‘The Emperor of Atlantis or Death’s disobedience’); for example, there’s a production at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna in January. It was written in Teresienstadt; a biting caricature of Hitler, widely thought to have been composed in the full awareness that it would bring about Ullman’s murder. Four singers performed the Finale, a brief cynical deal struck between Death and the Emperor which allow the suffering people to be released through death. Truncated as it was, and involving the acerbic style characteristic of Weimar Germany, it was probably unrewarding for the singers (Shayna Tweed, Margaret Medlyn, Declan Cudd and Roger Wilson), as it was for the audience. In a complete, staged performance it presumably makes its impact.

Laurence Sherr’s Cello Sonata brought Megiddo and Liu back to play a piece based on Holocaust songs, at least two evidently from the Vilnius ghetto.

(Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was grabbed by Poland in the fractious Russian-Lithuanian-Polish struggles after WW1 and so while Lithuania gained independence, with Kaunas the capital, Vilnius remained Polish till taken by the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. In 1941 the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Lithuania again fell under German control, but with the final Soviet victory, Lithuania regained its integrity but it became a Soviet republic along with the other Baltic states, till 1991. Those traumas involved the almost complete massacre of Vilnius’s large Jewish population {around 1900 they comprised about 40% of the population}.)

The first movement echoed German music of the turn of the century, the second, overtly emotional, hinting at Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. A third movement was a set of variations: lyrical, energetic, ferocious, a martial episode, optimistic… Attractive music, splendidly performed.

Richard Fuchs lived from 1887 to 1947, was imprisoned in Dachau after Kristallnacht, but released, remarkably, after obtaining a visa to come to New Zealand: he travelled in 1939. Typically, he was interned by the New Zealand authorities as an enemy alien. His song, a setting of T S Eliot’s poem, A Song for Simeon, was composed in 1938 (even though Fuchs knew that Eliot was an anti-semite). It was the world premiere, typically revealing the disregard of Fuchs as a composer. The song had an air of high competence, of a composer of consequence, and baritone James Clayton and pianist Gabriela Grapska delivered a stunningly committed performance.

Finally, another Nazi victim, Gideon Klein’s String Trio, written just weeks before his transfer to Auschwitz and death. Klein was a Czech whose musical studies in Prague showed high talent, and Wikipedia shows an impressive number of compositions, several of which were written in Terezin where he was imprisoned from 1941. The trio was played by three NZSO principals: violinist Yuri Gezentsvey, violist Peter Barber and cellist David Chickering.  The trio had a strong folk music flavour, which seemed variously risky and untroubled, fateful, sombre, though the last movement offered little evidence of the time and place where it was composed. The performance was highly accomplished, appearing to reveal at certain moments, an unease, moments of hesitancy, but overall a determination to retain a degree of optimism.

This might have been an uneven concert in terms of real musical strength, though none was without merit. It achieved its purpose nevertheless, of marking one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities, through music produced by composers of rare talent and human resilience.


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