Composers hounded by Nazi regime get their due at ANU

Echoes from a lost world: ANU – Museum of the Jewish People hosts "Lullabies, Love and War"

 MEZZO-SOPRANO Reut Ventorero (photo credit: Azzurra)
MEZZO-SOPRANO Reut Ventorero
(photo credit: Azzurra)

“Lullabies, Love and War” makes for a titillating, if not somewhat confusing, musical event title. But, as far as Nir Cohen-Shalit is concerned, it makes perfect diverse exegetic sense.

“Each song is different,” says the musical director and moderator of the concert, which takes place at ANU – Museum of the Jewish People, on the Tel Aviv University campus, on February 28 (8 p.m.). “We didn’t want to call it something like ‘War Songs,’ because it might deter people from coming,” he suggests.

Hopefully, it is the content that draws the public rather than the banner, although, naturally, if the latter doesn’t catch the eye, the quality of the performance program becomes redundant.

Tuesday’s concert is the latest installment of the “Into the Light: Music for Voice and Piano” series initiated by Yaacov (Jeffrey) Fisher under the aegis of the Spectacular World of Jewish Music nonprofit he founded in 2018.

The organization sets out to disseminate Jewish music that has been languishing in the nether regions of archives and other obscure spots around the world, blow off the dust and get it out to the light of day, so we, the public, can wrap our ears and – possibly – hearts around the yesteryear charts.

 NIR COHEN-SHALLIT  – musical director and moderator of  ‘Lullabies, Love and War.’ (credit: NIR ARIELI) NIR COHEN-SHALLIT – musical director and moderator of ‘Lullabies, Love and War.’ (credit: NIR ARIELI)

When the songs were created, some of the composers in question were mostly just getting on with their lives, oblivious of the dark clouds gathering as Hitler plotted the end of European Jewry. Others were written in the eye of the Holocaust storm.

What's in a name?

Cohen-Shalit says he was in favor of having “War” in the concert title, with a minor caveat in there, too. “I think it is important to mention war, even though the initial thinking behind the song selection was not necessarily connected to that topic.”

The idea was more to do with spreading the programmatic net as far and wide as possible. “I tried to put together a mix of writers, languages and styles.”

Fisher and the musical director had, and have, their sights set firmly on taking the Holocaust-related enterprise further down the road.

“I relate to this concert as a sort of calling card for our project, the whole venture that Jeffery established,” explains Cohen-Shalit. The rendition format was a major consideration. “I wondered how I could show as many perspectives as possible, with one or two singers and a piano. I wanted to show that the material in our project comes from almost right across the globe.”

That was a little surprising, as one naturally associates such music with Europe, specifically Nazi-occupied Europe. However, “Into the Light” is not confined to works by composers who perished in the Holocaust. Thankfully, some of them got away, albeit often after enduring plenty of persecution and hardship. Some even did pretty well for themselves, at least on a professional level, in their new countries of residence.

Walter Arlen is a good and rare example of that, although he was something of a born-again bloomer. Now 102 years old, Arlen started life in Vienna in 1920 and escaped to Chicago in 1939 with a bunch of his scores in a suitcase. He later became a music critic for the Los Angeles Times, whereupon he gave up composing, as he felt that maintaining both pursuits would constitute a conflict of interest. It wasn’t until he retired from journalism, in the late 1980s, that he resumed his songwriting, and it took another 20 or so years before the word got out to wider circles, after a concert of his works took place, in 2008, at the Jewish Museum in the city of his birth.

The ANU Museum show features his “Behold You Are Beautiful,” inspired by the Song of Songs.

Richard Fuchs is another composer who survived the Holocaust, although, tragically, he did not outlive World War II by much. After being incarcerated in Dachau, he managed to obtain approval to immigrate to New Zealand, where he earned his keep with his daytime occupation, as an architect. Tragically, his Jewish roots and harrowing prewar experiences went unrecognized in New Zealand, and he found himself ostracized there as a German. He gets some of his due in the ANU program, which includes “In Der Fremde,” written in 1937.

Under Cohen-Shalit’s studied stewardship, “Into the Light” not only sets out to honor Holocaust survivor and victim musicians, it also seeks to shed light on the cultural breadth of the songs – lieder in German – produced by tunesmiths who came from a broad range of backgrounds. That informs the variety of material that will be performed by mezzo-soprano Reut Ventorero and baritone Noam Heinz, with Yael Kareth providing accompaniment on piano.

Not all the survivor composers relocated to safer waters, in the US or the UK and simply picked up where they had left off. Robert Furstentahl, for example, who, like, Arlen was born in Vienna in 1920 and escaped to the States, became an accountant, and a pretty successful one at that. That may very well have left Furstentahl champing at the composing bit. However, in true Hollywoodesque style, he returned to music later in life, after reuniting with his first love, for decades and a failed marriage later.

While the musical director told me about the repertoire for this week’s concert, he also regaled me with some fascinating underlying narratives. The geographic and real-life drama plot thickens.

“Norbert Glanzberg, from France, wrote songs for Edith Piaff,” Cohen-Shalit tells me. “That relationship also helped to save his life. He was one of the Jewish artists who were hidden by the French.”

“Norbert Glanzberg, from France, wrote songs for Edith Piaff. That relationship also helped to save his life. He was one of the Jewish artists who were hidden by the French.”

Nir Cohen-Shalit

He could have added that Glanzberg, who was born in Galicia, was not just Piaff’s pianist-accompanist and songwriter; he was also her lover. That, surely, is the stuff of a moving film script. Two of Glanzberg’s songs from his “In Memoriam” cycle feature in Tuesday’s lineup.

The idea behind the current “Into the Light” offering was not just about the music itself but also to help us steer clear of pigeonholing and bundling all the writers together as “Holocaust composers” of a particular ilk and specific cultural baggage.

“I wanted to go for everything,” Cohen-Shalit notes. “When you talk about the repertoire of composers from the Holocaust, there is a tendency to look, almost exclusively, at the work of German-speaking Jews and Jews from Terezin [concentration camp in Czechoslovakia].”

Viktor Ullmann, the most celebrated of the numerous musicians and composers incarcerated there, most of whom were subsequently murdered in Auschwitz, has two Yiddish songs from his Brezulinka set in this week’s concert setlist. There are also songs by Hungarian Holocaust victim Laszlo Weiner, Viennese-born Wilhelm Grosz, Polish composer and pianist Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Ullmann’s compatriot and fellow Terezin inmate Gideon Klein, and Krakow-born Mordechaj Gebirtig, who was shot in the ghetto there in 1942.

There is some “local” interest in the program, too, with a Cohen-Shalit arrangement of “Ponar” by late Lithuanian-born pianist Alexander Tamir, who ran the Targ Center for Music in Jerusalem’s leafy Ein Kerem suburb for over half a century.

No doubt, more creators who went through their fair share of existential challenges, and kept their artistic flames burning for as long as they possibly could, will get at least some acknowledgment later on as the “Into the Light: Music for Voice and Piano” series unfurls.

For tickets and more information: *6119 and