Emotion-laden concert an appropriate response to the remembrance of the Holocaust

Music of Remembrance

Compositions by Laurence Sherr

Elegy and Vision (1993)
Flame Language (2008)
Khayele’s Waltz (2018)
Sonata for Cello and Piano – Mir zaynen do! (2014)

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington

Tuesday 30 July 2019, 7 pm

Laurence Sherr is Composer-in-Residence and Professor of Music at Kennesaw State University, Georgia. He is a prolific and versatile composer. The son of a couple who escaped Poland just before the outbreak of the Second World War and settled in the United States, he has a strong interest in the Holocaust and Holocaust education. He lectures all over the world on Holocaust remembrance music and first came to Wellington for the 2014 Conference on Suppressed Music at Victoria University of Wellington. His compositions range from the avant-garde to the accessible, and include new timbres, spatiality, nature, and Judaic music. He is especially interested in music as a mode of resistance and a means for survival.

The first work on the programme was Elegy and Vision, a work for solo cello. Sherr wrote it in memory of his brother who died young. It employs cantorial lamentations used in Jewish memorial prayers. Like Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, a transcription of the memorial prayer on the Day of Atonement, the music suits the deep mournful passages on the cello. The repeated phrases, the sounds of crying, the high notes evoke heart-breaking sorrow. Some of the music had the quality of improvisation, but there was also a note of rebellion, with a dramatic passage ending with plucked strings and harsh dissonance. Inbal Megiddo played with great sensitivity and a beautiful rich tone.

The next piece, Flame Language, was performed by Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano), Deborah Rawson (clarinet), Inbal Megiddo (cello), Jian Liu (piano), and Leonard Sakofsy (percussion), conducted by Donald Maurice. This is an unusual combination of instruments with the percussionist moving from one set of percussion instruments to another and adding colourful sounds to the ensemble. The song is a setting of a poem by the Jewish Nobel Prize winning poet, Nelly Sachs, who found sanctuary in Sweden during the period of the Holocaust. The poem, ‘The Candle that I have Lit For You’ comes from a collection of poems, Prayer for the Dead Bridegroom. Although these poems are about the Holocaust, written in Sweden about friends and relatives who were left behind and died in Poland, they are also about universal suffering. The music opens with an extended introduction using the particular tones of each instrument, the clarinet plays Jewish modal patterns, then the mezzo-soprano comes in with a haunting melodic line. Margaret Medlyn sang this beautifully. The various instruments explore the components of the musical theme. It is an interesting work that is hard to place in the context of contemporary music.

Khayele’s Waltz was based on a song written by a fifteen year old girl in the ghetto. It is written for an unusual combination of two instruments: a clarinet, played by Deborah Rawson, and cello, played by Inbal Megiddo. It makes use of a well known Yiddish melody, but set to a dissonant duet capturing the disturbing memory of the period. The cello and the clarinet echo each other, but out of sync, creating uneasy tension.

The final work, the longest, was the Sonata for Cello and Piano, played by Inbal Megiddo and Jian Liu. It attempts to deliberately tell the story of the Holocaust as an act of defiance, resistance and hope of survival. Sherr uses five well known songs embedded in the work, a song associated with resistance in the Vilna ghetto, ‘El Mo V’Rahamim’, the Jewish memorial prayer, sung notably by Cantor Shlomo Katz, spared on the edge of a mass grave from execution when he was allowed to sing this for those who had been killed, and the final movement, a set of eight variations on the Jewish Partisan song Mir Zaynen Do. This song was inspired by the news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the words set to the melody from a pre-war Soviet film. It became one of the chief anthems of Holocaust survivors. The words are:

“Never say that you have reached the very end,
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend;
For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive,
And our marching step will thunder: we survive!”

These were very meaningful words not only for those who survived the Holocaust, but also for young Zionists who saw Israel as a shield against future threats to Jews. It is an impressive and difficult work for the cello, but it is weighted by too much history. Incorporating emotionally laden themes in a piece of music presents special problems. Tchaikovsky did it in the 1812 Overture, Beethoven did it in the Battle Symphony, but these themes were not the substance of the music. In Sherr’s Cello Sonata it was impossible to separate the musical content from the emotion that the contemplation of history involved. Having said this, many in the audience were greatly moved by this long difficult piece, which was brilliantly played by Jian Liu and Inbal Megiddo.

It was an emotionally laden concert, and perhaps this moving reaction is the appropriate response to the remembrance of the Holocaust. It is to the great credit of the New Zealand School of Music that it has staff from different corners of the world capable of preparing, playing and recording this music. All the players participating in this concert deserve our accolade.