A new film commemorates the 1941 Babiy Yar Massacre of Ukraine Jews by the Nazis

Featuring excerpts from “Requiem – The Holocaust” by Israeli composer Boris Pigovat, a work for orchestra and viola soloist.

Narrator – Valentyna Bugrak
Composer – Boris Pigovat
Viola soloist – Xi Liu
Conductor – Martin Riseley
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Designer and Producer – Donald Maurice
Director – Bill McCarthy
Assistant Producer and translator – Xi Liu
Photographer – Dwight Pounds
Sound Engineer  – Graham Kennedy

Project funded by Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

A 2008 concert in Wellington given by the then Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei featured the very first performance in New Zealand of Russian-born Israeli composer Boris Pigovat’s “Requiem”, with violist Donald Maurice as the soloist.  This work, completed in 1995, commemorated the horrific massacre by the Nazis of thousands of Jewish citizens of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv during 1941. Pigovat’s grandparents and an aunt were among those murdered by the occupying Nazi forces in what has come to be known as “the Babiy Yar massacre”.

The “Requiem” was originally intended to be premiered in Israel, but (not inappropriately) the venue was changed by dint of circumstances to Kyiv itself, an event notable for the co-operation between the Israeli Cultural Attache in the city and the Goethe Institute, the work finally being premiered in 2001. Almost eight years later came the first New Zealand performance mentioned above (attended by the composer, and recorded by Atoll Records), which was followed by an invitation to the solo violist, Donald Maurice, to take part in the work’s first performance in Germany later in the year.  (The Middle C review of the Atoll recording can be read here: https://middle-c.org/2011/09/boris-pigovats-requiem-a-stunning-cd-presentation/).

All of this is by way of preamble to the 2020 making of a film, one which designer/producer Donald Maurice calls a “miracle”, considering it was all put together during a pandemic! The name “Lacrimosa Dies Illa” (Latin for “Full of tears will be that day”) is taken from the Dies Irae {“Day of Wrath”) sequence of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, words which have previously inspired various composers who have undertaken to compose a Requiem. The production boldly juxtaposes past and present images of the actual location with narrations of actual events, a commentary by the composer on the work’s specific content and general structure, and filmed excerpts from a performance of the work in the Adam Concert Room at the University’s School of Music.

The film opens with scenes from the place close to the ravine where the atrocities took place, now an idyllic park-like memorial, with long avenues of trees and various commemorative monuments and statues, one in particular dedicated to the children who lost their lives there. The latter is singled out in the presentation by a sudden orchestral cry of pain and lament during the introductory music of the opening “Requiem Aeternam” movement accompaniment. After this, Ukrainian violist Valentyna Bugrak, a member of the Kyiv Kamerata Ensemble orchestra, begins to narrate an outline of the horrific story of the massacres. Filmed on location at the park by Roman Strakhov, Bugrak appears at various times during the film to recount the continued “saga of atrocity” which took place at that location. Somehow, for me, her youthful presence and beauty, though separated by more years than would have allowed her to be directly associated with the events, seems to speak directly for the children whose lives were not allowed the chance to blossom, but instead caught up and ended by these brutal actions of the Nazis towards people they deemed expendable. Her commentary also outlines the tactics employed by the Nazis to trick the Jewish population into thinking that people were to be relocated to their historic homeland, and thus securing their compliance up to the point where it was too late for them to escape.

Composer Boris Pigovat, filmed at Rosh Ha’Ayin in Israel by Gyuqin Cao, is depicted explaining and  demonstrating on a piano the Requiem’s leading motifs, how and why they make their appearance and where they occur in the course of the music. Sitting with him is the violist we see performing much of the work, Xi Liu – I would have liked her interaction with the composer to have been rather less passive – there’s no chance for her to articulate any of her feelings about any parts of the work and its particular challenges, except via her superb playing with the NZSM Orchestra conducted by Martin Riseley. But to be fair, the film’s duration, five minutes over the hour, doesn’t waste a second in regard to what it does contain, a powerful and gripping amalgam of information, context and creative insight regarding content that’s at once fascinating and deeply tragic.

Some may find Pigovat’s explanations and analyses of his material too much of a good thing – but he does have the gift of describing his raw musical material and its relevance to the whole in emotive-based nontechnical language, which enables one to connect with a set of raw kind of impulses whose effects can be characterised in words – he readily points out his influences from non-Jewish sources, such as the Christian Requiem and its use of Latin as a language of ritual in both structure and content, but is able to set it in a kind of context of connection with faith and humanity in general, even a unifying force for those prepared to make the journey. The film is  good at demonstrating how the composer’s “raw” material is employed in the finished product, by playing orchestral rehearsal excerpts featuring the same motifs and their interaction. Pigovat is particularly eloquent when  explaining the significance of his use of the Latin title for the second movement “Dies Irae”, and its interaction with the Jewish prayer “Shema Israel”, paying special attention in the music to the idea of the horror being a kind of mechanism, a “murder machine” as well as a “devilish dance”. The orchestral performance which follows uses various concentration camp images to underline the sense of persecution and mechanised and systematic elimination of a significant body of people, the playing by the NZSM musicians under Martin Riseley’s direction building up and into a ferocious orchestrally-wrought maelstrom, followed by an equally macabre “dance of death”, concluding with the composer’s idea of a beating heart slowly dying, signifying life ebbing from those people caught up in the nightmare.

In view of the film’s title I expected much would be made of the similarly-named third movement of the Requiem – and so it proves, with Pigovat indicating his awareness of the usual response by composers to the “Lacrimosa” (weeping) text, but wanting something different in the wake of the Dies Irae movement, expressions of anger and strangulated pain, leading to a kind of madness whose intensity seems to take the human spirit to a state of oblivion in which everything is “burnt out”, the music primordial and impulse-driven – an amazing solo viola passage in which these things are unleashed is given in full, the music at once insensible and searingly eloquent in Xi Liu’s hands. Pigovat expresses the idea given to him by Prokofiev in his opera Semyon Kotko, a sequence in which a man is executed and his fiancee will not believe he is dead –  and like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet she loses her mind with grief, the music strange and “lost”, until an “explosion” of realisation finally brings tears. Pigovat was inspired at this point by Mozart’s Lacrimosa in his “Requiem”, the music a series of finely-wrought impulses of grief ebbing and flowing between silences……

The composer thought the concluding “Lux Aeterna” would be the lightest and most serene part of the work, but felt that  it needed a “fresh” approach, with themes that had not been heard before. We hear the themes sketched out for us, and then played by the soloist and orchestra, the music calling for a renewal of faith and hope – a beautiful passage for solo flute which the film highlights “speaks” for the character of this section of the music, and the Martinu-like ostinati for various instruments takes the music to the coda, a sequence which Pigovat considers connected with the souls of the dead, the viola interacting with sombre brass and percussion, the tones allowed to resonate into silence.

Valentyna Bugrak returns at the film’s end to tell us of how much was remembered and retold by the survivors of this tragic series of events, more so that we might appreciate and understand the full extent of the atrocity and be reminded that this must never be allowed to happen again.  The film’s gathering together of history, commentary and deeply-felt creative response concerning the horrific events at Babiy Yar inevitably makes for, in places uncomfortably heart-rending viewing and listening, but it serves to further remind us of our own human capacities for inhuman behaviour which, as more recent events have disturbingly demonstrated, can take unexpected shape and form in so many ways.

A website devoted to the  film will be launched shortly, one containing the documentation through which people’s work on all aspects of the production can be fully recognised and acknowledged. As this is the 80th anniversary year of the massacre, a number of countries have already indicated their interest in screening this film at this time.  Meanwhile, a trailer for the film can be viewed at the following link: – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Um-KIbm48ck&feature=youtu.be

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