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.

Maxwell Fernie – Centenary tribute at St.Mary of the Angels

MAXWELL FERNIE – A Centenary Tribute

Concert at St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

Presenter: James A.Young

Music by Maxwell Fernie, Helen Bowater, J.S.Bach, Rachmaninov, Palestrina, Purcell, Vierne, Widor

Performers: Thomas Gaynor, Donald Nicolson (organ) / Douglas Mews (organ, harpsichord) / Rowena Simpson (soprano)

Gregory O’Brien (speaker) / Yury Gezentsvey (violin), Peter Barber (viola) / Robert Oliver (viola da gamba, conductor)

St.Mary of the Angels Choir

Sunday 25th April 2010

Maxwell Fernie (1910-1999) was a true “Renaissance Man”, one of those multi-talented people whose activities encompassed a vast range of skills, interests and sensibilities. Born in Wellington exactly one hundred years ago this year, the young Max showed sufficient promise as a young musician and teacher to secure the position as organist and choirmaster at St.Joseph’s Catholic Church, next to the Basin Reserve. Immediately following the Second World War, during which he served with the Second NZEF in Egypt and Europe, Fernie became one of a number of talented New Zealand musicians who undertook to complete their musical training in the Northern Hemisphere. For him this meant remaining in London, where he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music. He was awarded prizes in Organ-playing and Extemporization, General Musicianship and History of Music. Just three years after his return to New Zealand he was back in London in 1953 where he took the post of organist of Westminster Cathedral, a position he held with great distinction for five years. Fortunately for Wellington, and for New Zealand, Fernie decided to return home to take up the directorship of the St Mary of the Angels Choir, a position he was to maintain until his death in 1999. He was also the Wellington City organist for 27 years, the founder and conductor of the Schola Polyphonica Choir, and a teacher of organ at Victoria University of Wellington. He was awarded the OBE in 1974 for services to music.

Something of his lasting influence across the years and among his many associates and talented pupils was strongly and joyfully conveyed by a Maxwell Fernie Centenary Tribute Concert fittingly held in the Church of St Mary of the Angels, an event participated in and attended by both people who knew and worked with him and others, like myself, who never met him but were aware of his prodigious achievements. For people to whom his name might have been familiar, but the extent of his activities as a musician far less so, the concert would have been a revelation, as well as food for reflection. The variety and depth of what music-lovers in Wellington enjoy today was built up over many years by the talents, hard work and inspiration of people like Maxwell Fernie, something that anniversaries such as these should emphasise and celebrate as an on-going and life-enhancing process. Thanks to the heartfelt and committed advocacy of Max’s family, and former friends, associates and pupils, this concert did him and his reputation proud.

The Parish Priest of St.Mary of the Angels, Father Barry Scannell welcomed us all to the church for what he called a “very special occasion”. He was followed by Andrew Fernie, Max’s son, who spoke about the Maxwell Fernie Trust, set up to continue the legacy of the great man by means of an annual scholarship award of $10,000 to young, up-and-coming organists and choral conductors. For the Trust the concert was a red-letter occasion, as it marked the inaugural presentation of the award to a young organist Thomas Gaynor, made later in the programme by the Minister for Arts Culture and Heritage, the Hon. Chris Finlayson. James A.Young, who was Fernie’s assistant organist and choirmaster, and later his successor at St.Mary’s, took over as Master of Ceremonies, and first of all introduced Max to the audience via a recording of an interview, made in 1958, Max obviously in his element talking about the newly-installed pipe organ in the church. We heard him clapping his hands to demonstrate the space’s reverberation, and playing exerpts to illustrate the types of organ pipe being used, their combinations and interplay with the pedal notes. It all made a perfect introduction to the concert’s first musical item, Douglas Mews’ playing of JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G, the opening sprightly and characterful, and the fugue steady and cumulative, with clear, focused lines throughout.

Next, Robert Oliver, currently the Director of Music at St.Mary of the Angels conducted the choir, which he sang with as a student under Fernie, who was in fact his first singing teacher. The performers firstly gave us Maxwell Fernie’s own “Ingrediente”, here sung with forthright, beautifully over;lapping tones, the voices true (a touch of wavery tone in places) and properly celebratory in impulse and effect. Rachmaninov’s “Ave Maria” followed, its plainchant opening leading to a harmonised repetition of the “Ave” and some lovely bass notes in “Benedictus tu” beneath the women’s voices with the melody in octaves. Palestrina’s  exquisite “Sicut Cervus” demonstrated the freedom and beauty of the women’s voices, able to float their tones throughout in a way that the men’s voices weren’t quite able to do. As a contrast, soprano Rowena Simpson, with Robert Oliver’s bass viol and Douglas Mews’ harpsichord, gave us Purcell’s “Music for a while” – lovely singing from the soprano (another of Fernie’s former pupils), even if I felt the music’s pulse dragged just a little in places.

The impact of Maxwell Fernie’s tenure as Director of Music at St.Mary’s, reflected in Art Gallery owner Peter McLeavey’s words “He opened worlds to me that I never knew existed”, was obviously a sentiment shared by poet and artist Gregory O’Brien and composer Helen Bowater. Their regard for Fernie’s work came together around a poem written by O’Brien called “The Non-Singing Seats”, celebrating the involvement in music felt by the listener when attending any performance directed by Max in St.Mary’s, a feeling also expressed by O’Brien in two etchings completed at the request of Peter McLeavey to help raise money for the Trust. The same poem was then set to music by Helen Bowater, the work interestingly scored for violin and viola, rather than for organ or any kind of keyboard configuration,as one might have expected, the composer’s choice expressing the ambience of each of the etchings, violin for the lighter,and viola for the darker of the two images. My experience of music mixed with spoken word, as opposed to singing, is that it rarely works well, partly due to the speaking voice’s comparative lack of projection (it’s no accident, I think, that those Second Viennese School works which use speakers call the technique “Sprechgesang”). O’Brien himself read the poem in the performance, the entry-points of the words precisely placed in the score by the composer, but afterwards the poetry allowed to flow at the reader’s own pace. The effect was interesting, but something of a diffuse experience for me, finding as I did the somewhat Ivesian effect of parallel modes of expression distracting, instead of one illuminating the other in performance.

Fortunately, the work was recorded by the same forces, violinist Yury Gezentsvey and violist Peter Barber joining Gregory O’Brien as in the church. Much of the text in the live performance was difficult to hear because of the microphoning and speaker placement not being ideal – the recording preserves much more clarity, being better-balanced. It also gives one the chance to concentrate on single strands and follow those lines for more coherence’s sake – in the concert the words of the poem particularly suffered in this respect, though I wanted to hear more clearly the interplay of the instrumental dialogues and their overall ebb and flow. I was certainly expecting something different from the work, probably a primacy of text-language, to which the musical strands would pay due homage. Instead, it sounded more like an instance of the voice being a third instrument, carrying less specific detailing and more interactive abstraction, the spoken word truly inhabiting a “non-singing seat” as it were, but fully participating in the refulgent glow of the music-making. The two instrumentalists also performed two 2-part Inventions by JS Bach, the second of which caused veritable ripples of appreciation throughout the building at its conclusion.

The moment came for the Hon. Chris Finlayson, the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, to present the inaugural Maxwell Fernie Organ scholarship. The Minister raised a laugh at the outset by talking of Max’s music-making giving him every Sunday a sense of the eternal, as opposed to the more common present-day phenomenon of guitar-playing in church leaving a taste of the infernal! He then presented the scholarship to the winner, eighteen year-old Thomas Gaynor, already a winner of various organ prizes in both New Zealand and Australia, one being the 2009 ORGANZ Organ Performance Award. The Maxwell Fernie Trust Award will help Thomas with funding the overseas experience he requires involving coaching from leading European players and teachers, and encountering some of the great instruments to be found throughout the Continent. We were able to watch some video footage featuring one of Britain’s most well-known organists Nicolas Kynaston, talking about Max, who was his teacher and mentor in London, and then some treasurable sequences featuring Fernie himself teaching, and philosophising about music in general – very inspirational!  After this, James Young recounted his impressions of Max’s exacting and uncompromising specifications for the rebuilding of the St.Mary’s organ (which took place eventually in 2006). There remained the proof of the pudding – and the young inaugural recipient of the Trust’s scholarship, Thomas Gaynor, proceeded to give a brilliant performance of the finale of Vierne’s First Organ Symphony, amply demonstrating both his suitability as the successful scholar, and Maxwell Fernie’s expertise as an organ designer. I loved the almost Mahlerian feel of the work’s final pages, the movement’s principal thematic material returning with wonderful, inevitable power.

Ater this tour de force one could have forgiven Donald Nicolson for steering the same instrument straight into the strains of “Happy Birthday” and away from the evergreen “Toccata” from Widor’s Fifth Symphony, which, following the Vierne, was always going to be a bit anticlimactic. However, he didn’t disappoint the punters and resolutely played the piece, then adroitly wove the time-honoured birthday melody into the coda, inviting the audience to join in with the song.  It was perfect as a tribute from everybody, including the “Non-Singing Seats”, to the man who like no other made the spaces of the same building resound with the most glorious music.