“Kristallnacht” at the Wellington Jewish Community Centre – brilliant and deeply-felt performances of significant music

Beth El Synagogue (the Wellington Jewish Community Centre), in partnership with
Te Kōki New Zealand School of Music (Victoria University of Wellington) presents:
KRISTALLNACHT – Unity Concert, 2019

This concert was a commemoration of the anti-Jewish events of 9/10 November, 1938, (“Kristallnacht”) which took place throughout the Third Reich

Music by Schulhoff, Weinberg, Farr, Korngold and Pigovat, along with jazz and cabaret selections

Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942) – Five Pieces for String Quartet
Sixteen Strings: – Toloa Faraimo/Shanita Sungsuwan (violins)/Peter Gjelsten (viola)/ Emma Ravens (’cello)

Miecyzslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996) – Piano Trio Op.24
Te Kōki Trio: Martin Riseley (violin)/Inbal Megiddo (‘cello)/Jian Liu (piano)

Gareth FARR (b.1968) – He Poroporoaki (A Farewell)
New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl/Monique Lapins (violins)/Gillian Ansell (viola)/Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello), withy Ruby Solly (taonga puoro)

Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957) – Marietta’s Song, from the opera Die Tote Stadt (arr. for voice and piano quintet)
Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)/New Zealand String Quartet/Jian Liu (piano)

Boris PIGOVAT (b.1953) – Nigun, for viola quartet
Lucy Liu, Grant Baker, Sophia Acheson, Donald Maurice (violas)

Selection of jazz and cabaret music from the camps
Barbara Graham (soprano)/David Barnard (piano)/Ben van Leuven (clarinet)
Te Kōki Trio

Beth El Synagogue (Wellington Jewish Community Centre)
Mt.Cook, Wellington

Sunday, 10th November, 2019

We were welcomed to the Beth El Synagogue (the Wellington Jewish Community Centre) by Rabbi Ariel Tal, our host for the evening, who talked about the words of the Torah as having a similar “song of life” quality to that of the concert we were about to hear; and then by Deborah Hart, the Chair of the Holocaust Centre, who drew a poignant and powerful comparison with the events of Kristellnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”) throughout Hitler’s Reich in 1938, and the recent attack on the mosques in Christchurch, contrasting the sounds of glass shattering with the comforting and restorative strains of the music programmed for tonight’s concert.

Other speakers were Adam Awad from Somalia, now a resident of New Zealand and an advocate for refugees through organisations he helped to found such as the Changemakers Refugee Forum and the National Refugee Network, and Professor Donald Maurice, presently the Acting Head of Te Koki New Zealand School of Music, who talked of the collaborations that have taken place between the NZSM and The Holocaust Centre since the historic concert of 2008 at which Boris Pigovat’s Holocaust Requiem was premiered.

Introductions completed, the first performers were welcomed to the platform to begin the evening’s music, which was for the most part written by composers of Jewish ancestry, though included in the programme was a piece by one of New Zealand’s leading composers, Gareth Farr. First to be performed was a work by the Czech-born Erwin Schulhoff, whose career as a composer and pianist brought him considerable acclaim at its outset, his radical, forward-looking music influenced by jazz and contemporary trends such as Dadaism. All of this was effectively ended by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 – too late, Schulhoff applied for and was granted Soviet citizenship, but he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis before he could leave the country. He died in a concentration camp in Wülzburg in 1942.

His Five Pieces for String Quartet from almost twenty years previously proclaimed happier times – dedicated to the French composer Darius Mihaud, the sections of the music commanded instant attention with their invention and variety. They were splendidly performed by a group of young musicians called Sixteen Strings – Toloa Faraimo and Shanita Sungsuwan (violins), Peter Gjelsten (viola) and Emma Ravens (‘cello), a group that, having formed in March of this year, had then actually carried off the top award at the 2019 NZCT Secondary Schools Chamber Music Competition.

Right from the opening Viennese Waltz the players “owned” both the music’s “point” and “line”, characterising its angular aspects with both wit and insouciance. The Serenade sang its droll swagman’s song, its brief “circus act” in the middle section as deftly managed as the subtle gradations towards the end; while the Czech Folk Music was a wild ride whose energies contrasted beautifully with the sultriness of the Tango, the musicians beautifully and instinctively “feeling” when to hold, and when to let go. Finally the Tarantella displayed ear-catching dynamics, the trajectories by turns ‘weighted” and “whispered”, here beguiling and there dangerous-sounding! – and all done with razor-sharp ensemble that left us all breathless with exhilaration! Well done!

Better-known, perhaps, though with a name suffering under a confusing plethora of different renditions and translations (variously Weinberg/Wajnberg/Vainberg and Vajnberg, with the former emerging as the most frequently-used in recent times), Mieczyslaw Weinberg, born in Poland in 1919 to Jewish parents, came from an artistic family, his father a conductor and composer, his mother an actress, both in Warsaw’s Yiddish theatre. The year he graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory (1939) he had to flee Poland for the Soviet Union, leaving his parents and younger sister in Poland, all of whom eventually perished at the hands of the Nazis. Weinberg’s meeting and subsequent association with Dmitri Shostakovich changed his life, the older composer regarding him as an artistic “brother” and supporting him through various conflicts with the authorities, at least one of them a potential death-sentence.

Though strongly influenced by Shostakovich’s work, Weinberg’s music has its own unique personality and qualities – native Polish, Jewish and Moldavian elements are common, as is a fondness for humour and satire, balanced against a feeling for epic structure. His output was enormous, comprising 156 opus numbers (and still remaining for most concert-goers largely undiscovered territory). Te Koki Trio, comprising Martin Riseley (violin), Inbal Megiddo (cello) and Jian Liu (piano) threw themselves onto the canvas of the composer’s epic Op.24 Piano Trio, launching the opening Prelude and Aria of the work with the kind of gusto one imagined would be inspired by a masterwork, the violin and ‘cello declamatory, even joyful, the strings swapping themes and the piano hammering out an accompaniment – gradually the intensities melt into the Larghetto, the piano joining the duetting strings with a bird-song-like obbligato, as the music alternated violin pizz. with ‘cello arco, and vice-versa, finishing sotto voce.

The Toccata:Allegro movement which followed had a Shostakovich-like insistence, the triplets hammered out by the piano and reiterated by violin and cello with nightmarish intensity, mingling sounds of war (air-raid siren-like modulations and the clamour of frightened voices  and running feet), each instrument intense and frenetic, expressing something all-pervasive and overwhelming, right to the concluding moment of silence. A Moderato which followed was subtitled “Poem”, allowing pianist Jian Liu whole moments of poetic musing before the string instruments’ pizzicati exchanges led to interactions whose intensities built up into a grotesque march, the energies of engagement remarkable and harrowing, and their gradual dissipation no less so. There came into view a different, though no less challenging world, a single violin note held plaintively and tragically as its strains were overcome by the resonances from piano and ‘cello…….

Into the void drifted the piano’s artless carefree theme, switching its mode to an accompanying one as first the volatile violin, then the carefree cello took the argument forward. The violin skirmished and the cello danced a circus dance, which the piano couldn’t resist, joining her in fugal style, the violin doing the same – the energy generated fired up the performers even more, the strings launching into a kind of danse macabre, building up the intensities until the performers seemed to plateau almost stratospherically, the air beneath pushing up the sounds, and trying to liberate some kind of grand statement! To the music’s near-impasse came the violin to the rescue, a wistful waltz-tune, one to which the other instruments seemed to want to align with, the ‘cello musing richly and almost contentedly, the piano suddenly intoning a hymn-like melody, restraining its own portentous reply, and giving way to the violin and ‘cello’s single, stratospheric concluding notes – (apologies for the long-winded description, but I found this music so gripping I couldn’t help myself!)

Gareth Farr’s “He Poroporoaki” (A Farewell) came afterwards like a kind of benediction following a soul’s torturous journey, the taonga puoro ambiences emanating from Kai Tahu musician Ruby Solly’s playing (assisted at the outset by quartet leader Helene Pohl’s activating of a gong-like instrument) imbuing the sounds and textures wrought by the New Zealand String Quartet players with a palpable sense of valediction relating to our time and place, the universality of lament given a home-grown identity, as it were. While the strings throughout remained largely elegiac in manner, the taonga puoro realised a range of emotions and evocations from anger and grandeur to tenderness and sorrow, the “Now is the Hour” refrain worked into the lines with a bitter-sweet sense of loss and grief, the poignancy of it all underlined by the sounds of breath accompanying the final strains.

An interval separated these larger-scale works from what seemed a more “relaxed” second-half, though with no lessening of focus or musical quality. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera 1920 “Die Tote Stadt”, a work banned by the Nazis, was represented with “Marietta’s Song”, here sung by mezzo-soprano Margaret Medlyn, and accompanied by string quartet and piano (the last-named instrument omitted in the programme). No-one could deny the distinctive “Viennese” quality of this music, with the vocal line so beautifully partnered instrumentally in places – real, lump-in-the-throat stuff! Medlyn’s phrasing and shaping of the vocal line  “placed” the emotion of the moment as exquisitely and easefully as did the instrumental-only central part of the music, with first the ‘cello and then the viola taking up the melody with the piano. Everything seemed to simply “float” on a sea of intense emotion, the violin harmonics before the voice’s re-entry and at the song’s end capturing the beautiful and bitter-sweet essence of the work with the most acute delicacy and sensitivity.

Boris Pigovat, the Israeli composer whose “Holocaust Requiem” began  in 2008 the  “Kristellnacht” series of concerts in Wellington, was represented here by Nigun, a work written to express the “tragic spirit” the composer felt informed Jewish traditional music without quoting any such specific themes. Originally written for string orchestra in 1996, this version for viola quartet was made by the composer earlier this year (2019), and was premiered in Poland by an ensemble led by Lucy Liu, the leader of the “consort of violas” performing the work in this concert.

Beginning with a solo played by the leader – a recitative-like opening, reminiscent in parts of Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo” – the piece’s different voices cleverly explore contrasting registers to diversify the textures and intensities of the music, not unlike a Baroque concerto would do. The piece’s structure – an introduction, followed by an intense building-up to a central climax, followed by a partly valedictory, partly tragic conclusion – was vividly realised, with energies properly spent and feeling seemingly exhausted at the piece’s end.

The concert concluded with a “selection of jazz and cabaret music from the camps” – beginning with a tango number put across with tremendous flair and a good deal of power of presence and voice by soprano Barbara Graham, realising the song’s ever-agglomerating intensity and focus towards a terrific climax – it sounded like Kurt Weill and it was! – a work called “Youkali” a “tango-habanera”, written in 1934 for an opera “Marie Galante”, the song a plea for peace and love in an imagined land “Youkali” of hope and desire. Graham was accompanied by pianist David Barnard and clarinettist Ben van Leuven.

For Graham’s final three songs, David Barnard took up the piano-accordion – the first of these was called “When a small package arrives”. Sung in Dutch, Graham delivered the wistful opening with pent-up longing, which broke into a polka-rhythm for the song’s main body, the singer charmingly translating the words for us during the music’s middle instrumental section.  Then came the “Westerbork Serenade”, famously and bizarrely recorded by two of the transit camp’s inmates, a popular singing duo ”Johnny and Jones”, in 1944, and here sung by both Graham and Barnard with fervour and energy. The Te Kōki Trio joined the duo for the final “Auschwitz Tango”, the words of the song, incredibly, written by a twelve year-old girl in Auschwitz, and translated by Graham at the song’s beginning – the music was dark, tragic and incredibly defiant, and the performance by the singer exemplary. It was all put across with almost unbearably laden strength of feeling, and so very movingly strong and resistant-sounding at the end, a veritable ballade of courage in the face of adversity and persecution – which, of course, was what the concert and its context was all about. An extraordinary experience!







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