Sharon Farber believes in putting her heart, soul and everything else into her work. Mind you, the Israeli-born Los Angeles-based composer and classical pianist says there are rewards aplenty to be reaped from the all-out approach, and she should know.
Farber was recently over here to perform the local premiere, at the Tel Aviv Museum, of her composition Translucent Rocks, with the Israel Chamber Orchestra. She is a very much in demand composer and performer, and is kept gainfully employed in Hollywood writing scores for movies.
But possibly her most emotive experience as a composer was the creation of Bestemming – Cello Concerto No. 1.
The name of the concerto comes from the Dutch for “destination,” a crucially operative word in the long life of Curt Lowens. Lowens, now a sprightly 88 and a veteran film and television actor, was the inspiration for Farber’s work. He was born in Germany. His family did not hang around when they witnessed the violence of Kristallnacht, in November 1938, and literally days before Lowens’ bar mitzvah, they hurriedly relocated to Holland – hence the Dutch title of Farber’s concerto.
The catalyst for the new work came from left field, from celebrated cellist Ruslan Biryukov, who founded the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra in California.
“Ruslan called me and asked me to write a composition for the orchestra,” Farber recalls. “But I had just done scores for three Hollywood movies and I was exhausted. I told him I couldn’t do it, but Ruslan is very persuasive and eventually wore me down.”
Firmly committed to the new venture, Farber was left with the task of finding a theme for the work. The spark was provided by a highly emotive event, while the composer was busy with one of her other breadwinning pursuits.
“I am the musical director of the Temple of the Arts synagogue in Beverley Hills,” explains Farber. “On the High Holidays we make a whole production of the services, with lots of musicians and singers, and the place is packed out. Last Yom Kippur, at the end of the service, our rabbi – David Baron – brought Curt Lowens on to the stage to tell his story.
“At the end of his story he asked some people to join him on the stage. They included the children and grandchildren of a Dutch pilot whose life Curt had saved during World War Two. It was very moving.”
Farber had found her inspiration for the Biryukov commission. “Curt was in the Dutch Resistance and he hid two American pilots from the Germans. He was only a youth, and he would have been killed by the Germans had the deed been uncovered,” continues Farber. “The people on the stage would not have been around had it not been for Curt’s act of bravery. Everyone in the synagogue was moved by the story. It was quite an experience for all of us.”
Soon after Yom Kippur Farber contacted Lowens and asked if she could base her new work on his story and he agreed with alacrity. But there were some logistics to be negotiated before Farber could take the project to the next stage.
“Curt wrote an autobiography called Destination Question Mark, which has three parts to it – Escape, Resistance and Triumph – and I couldn’t find the book anywhere.
Eventually the president of the synagogue found me a copy.”
Farber read the book and followed that up by getting a firsthand perspective on the World War Two events.
“I interviewed Curt and that’s how the whole composition started out. The composition has four parts to it – the three parts of the book, and I added an initial movement, called Shattered. That relates to the broken glass of Kristallnacht.”
After getting three of the four parts of Bestemming done and dusted, with a frantic time-out to carry out yet another commission, this time for a documentary which is lined up for this year’s Oscar’s, Farber asked Biryukov over to check out the evolving score.
“Ruslan is an amazing instrumentalist,” says the composer. “He is very charismatic and has amazing technique and he is called ‘the Jimi Hendrix of the cello.’ Our first rehearsal lasted seven hours and we made a lot of progress.”
It is, indeed, a stirring work. There are powerful passages, as well as narration, although the music does not generally register too high on the decibel scale.
“I asked Curt what the word ‘triumph’ means to him, and he said that, for him, triumph is something quiet and wondrous, without all the fireworks and crescendos.
So, when I got down to writing the last part of Bestemming it starts out with a quiet passage, with just the cello and violins.”
The “softly, softly” mindset, says Farber, comes from Lowens’ harrowing experience when he came face to face with high-ranking German officers immediately after the end of the war, when he acted as an interpreter for the British Army.
“The British heard Curt knew English so they gave him a British Army uniform and took him with them to a castle which had been taken by the Germans. The British asked Curt to inform the Germans that the war was over and that they had lost. We are talking about a very senior German officer, just one rung down from Hitler.”
It is hard to imagine how Lowens handled the task.
“Curt had a gun and he said his hand trembled over the gun. There is a part in the narration of Bestemming which goes: ‘This uniform makes me feel alive, but underneath I’m still that Jewish boy with teary eyes.’” Lowens is obviously a brave man and, thankfully, is still around to tell the tale.
“Curt travels all over the world to talk to people about his experiences,” says Farber.
“It is so important to tell his story – through my music, too. But it is not just about Curt. There are lots of Curt Lowenses all over the world. I am sure there are brave people in Syria today, and all over.
Bestemming is also about them.”
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