AUSTRIAN COMPOSER-CONDUCTOR Franz Chreker was known for his aesthetic plurality timbral experimentation and extended tonality. (photo credit: Courtesy World Congress of Jewish Studies)
AUSTRIAN COMPOSER-CONDUCTOR Franz Chreker was known for his aesthetic plurality timbral experimentation and extended tonality. (photo credit: Courtesy World Congress of Jewish Studies)
'Into The Light': Concert tribute to Nazi-persecuted composers
 

“What if?” or “If only” are quandaries that have probably plagued humankind for eons. Could we, for example, have behaved differently in certain situations or made a better decision? That generally comes with some concomitant feelings of regret or even guilt. But the uncertainty inferred by the “Into the Light: Music for Voice and Piano” concert is not self-imposed or a matter of exercising better judgment or control.

“Into the Light” will take place on August 11 (6 p.m.) at the Dan Wassong Auditorium of the Yitzhak Rabin Building on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus.

The performance features a brace of vocalists, mezzo-soprano Reut Ventorero and baritone Noam Heinz, with Yael Kareth providing accompaniment on piano. Conductor and musicologist Nir Cohen-Shalit serves as musical director.

This is not an isolated, academically inclined, venture. It is part of a well-coordinated initiative to promulgate the works of composers who perished in the Holocaust and others who created under extreme duress and were forced to abandon their physical and cultural home in order to survive.

The World Congress of Jewish Studies

The concert also forms part of the 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies, which takes place on Mount Scopus August 8-11 under the aegis of the World Union of Jewish Studies (WUJS). This is a gargantuan event with hundreds of researchers, academics and professionals from a vast array of associated fields, from all parts of the globe, coming here to give talks and take part in discussions.

 AUSTRIAN-BORN composer-conductor Erich Wolfgang Korngold enjoyed a glittering Hollywood career. (credit: Courtesy World Congress of Jewish Studies) AUSTRIAN-BORN composer-conductor Erich Wolfgang Korngold enjoyed a glittering Hollywood career. (credit: Courtesy World Congress of Jewish Studies)

For some idea of the breadth of the subject matter that will be on the table at the hilltop university campus over the four days, consider such session themes as Jewish Discourse in Contemporary Art, Jewish Thought and Climate Change, Challenges of Jewish Law in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Women Artists: Identity and Ethnicity, and Judaism in the Cinema: Fate, Identity and Representation.

WUJS is an international organization that promotes Jewish studies worldwide. Since its establishment, at the Second World Congress of Jewish Studies in 1957, the union has advanced Jewish studies through conferences, publications and grants in order to encourage research and the exchange of ideas among scholars. As such, the eclectic spread of thematic directions at the congress gathering is hardly surprising.

"Into The Light"

“INTO THE Light” was masterminded by Yaakov Fisher, who established the delightfully named Spectacular World of Jewish Music (SWJM) nonprofit four years ago with the expressed aim of “bringing Jewish music – in its widest sense – to the stage, thereby enhancing the rich musical heritage of the Jewish people through the ages.”

Fisher made sure he had the expertise and professional collateral for the event, culling an international advisory board that includes such luminaries from the fields of music and history as David Fligg, a British musicologist and an authority on the music from Terezín; London-based American researcher and Grammy Award-winning record producer Michael Haas, who also works with the Exilarte Center for Banned Music in Vienna; and Mark Ludwig, executive director of the Terezin Music Foundation in Boston.

Next week’s project focuses specifically on composers whose work and corporeal existence were impinged and, sadly, in some cases decimated by the Nazi regime. Any form of creation by Jews and other “undesirables” such as blacks, gypsies, communists or homosexuals was designated by Hitler as “entartete,” or degenerate, art. In the musical sphere, this took in Yiddish and cabaret songs, jazz and cantorial songs.

Thursday’s concert embraces a broad repertoire of instrumental and vocal material, arranged for two singers and piano. This includes “In der Fremde,” based on a text by Heinrich Heine, and set to music by Richard Fuchs.

After being incarcerated at Dachau concentration camp for some time, Fuchs managed to immigrate to New Zealand, taking some of his scores with him.

Other names of note in the concert program include Lithuanian-born Jerusalemite pianist Alexander Tamir, who ran the Tamir-Eden Music Center in Ein Kerem for many years; Czech pianist, composer and educator Gideon Klein; and Austrian composer, conductor and pianist Viktor Ullmann. The latter is probably the best known name on the “Into the Light” roster, particularly for his stirring political opera The Emperor of Atlantis, which he wrote in Terezin, while Klein has a special place in Cohen-Shalit’s heart.

 LEADING FRENCH modernist composer Darius Milhaud fled Nazi-occupied France for the US. (credit: Courtesy World Congress of Jewish Studies) LEADING FRENCH modernist composer Darius Milhaud fled Nazi-occupied France for the US. (credit: Courtesy World Congress of Jewish Studies)

Terezin – aka Theresienstadt

In the context of the Holocaust, Terezin – aka Theresienstadt – is a special case. The Nazis used the camp as a sort of show facility to try to dupe the Allies and the Red Cross into believing that Hitler was taking good care of the Jews. The SS went so far as to produce a propaganda film called Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area, which also went by the name of The Führer Gives a City to the Jews, filmed by Jewish prisoners. The Terezin inmates lived in terrible conditions but enjoyed a rich cultural life.

Cohen-Shalit, whose bio to date includes a conducting berth with the Israeli Opera, developed a particular interest in the musical goings-on at Terezin, where large numbers of artists, across numerous disciplines, were interned. How anyone could produce such wonderful works of art in such conditions is astounding. But it said that the possibility of continuing to create is what kept them alive, emotionally as well as corporeally.

Many were subsequently murdered in Auschwitz or did not survive the death marches toward the end of the war, as the SS maintained its efforts to murder as many Jews as it possibly could, even as the Red Army drew ever closer.

The aforesaid “if only” poser, Cohen-Shalit feels, is especially pertinent in the context of Gideon Klein. “I researched him and wrote my master’s degree thesis on him,” he says. “He is an example of a musician who would have developed into one of the leaders of his generation, probably as a pianist but certainly as a composer. I have no doubt about that.”

That is a pretty bold statement, considering Klein was still of tender years when he was sent to Terezin.

“Ullmann’s life was violently cut short, but he had a good career of over 20 years before he was deported,” says Cohen-Shalit. “Klein was only around 22 years old when he was sent to the camp.” He was murdered at a sub-camp of Auschwitz at the age of 25.

The Klein piece in the “Into the Light” program opens a window on a historic footnote of which I and, presumably, many others were unaware.

It seems, back when the Internet, emails and even half-decent telephone communications between pre-state Palestine and Europe were not even a twinkle in anybody’s eye, songs created in this part of the world, by the likes of Yehuda Sharett and Mordechai Zeira, somehow found their way to Jewish communities overseas.

“There were all sorts of song booklets printed which got to Europe, probably as part of Zionist efforts to disseminate Hebrew,” explains Cohen-Shalit.

Amazingly, one of the booklets ended up in Klein’s hands at Terezin. “He was a youth counselor in one of the huts there,” the conductor adds, suggesting that Klein may have been keen to edify his young wards about matters relating to Jewish-Hebrew areas of knowledge.

One of the intriguing aspects of the Holocaust is that the Nazis did not differentiate between the assimilated and unassimilated, as Klein discovered. “He had some interest in his Jewish roots, he knew the alef-bet, but he didn’t engage in any Zionist activity.” After being incarcerated due to his ethnic roots, Klein became more enthused about exploring the possibilities of Hebrew usage.

Had he not been conversant with Hebrew lettering, presumably he would not have done anything with an entry in one of the song booklets, a ditty called “Shechav Beni” – “Lie Down My Son” – written by Emanuel Harussi.

“He wrote an arrangement of the song and transcribed the Hebrew words into German lettering, although he wrote the title of the song in Hebrew.” A new arrangement of the song features in Thursday’s concert.

Many of the pieces in Thursday’s program will be performed as new arrangements, basically due to the fact that the concert format – a pianist and two vocalists – differs from the original orchestration. Cohen-Shalit did not want the presentation divide to prevent the compositions from reaching new ears and hearts.

“I wanted to bring works from the wonderfully rich repertoire of European Jews. There are, for example, arrangements of two Yiddish folksongs written by [Vienna-born composer] Wilhelm Grosz. He was a conductor and pianist, too. He wrote some arrangements for Yiddish folksongs in the 1920s.”

Nir Cohen-Shalit

“I wanted to bring works from the wonderfully rich repertoire of European Jews,” he says. And there’s plenty to be had. “There are, for example, arrangements of two Yiddish folksongs written by [Vienna-born composer] Wilhelm Grosz. He was a conductor and pianist, too. He wrote some arrangements for Yiddish folksongs in the 1920s.”

The Grosz numbers may have predated Hitler’s rise to power, but Cohen-Shalit feels they deserve their slot in the concert lineup. “They were not written in the shadow of the Holocaust, but they offer some testimony to Yiddish culture and folksongs.” That, he says, should be treasured. “So many songs from that time did not survive. Most of that repertoire was conveyed by word of mouth and was not written down. There were some books published with folksongs, but many of them did not survive.”

THE MUSIC in question may have been written by Jewish composers, but Cohen-Shalit is not sure whether all of the material fed off religious climes and sensibilities. I recalled that when I was at university, one of the perplexing questions that surfaced from time to time was whether one could talk of “Jewish art” per se. “When you are relating to music, it is very complex. Music is so abstract. When you have music with a text, that helps to give it a more tangible form. But that is not really the case with instrumental works.”

Then again, as art feeds off life, surely any composer must necessarily invest their charts with at least some of their personal baggage. If that is the case, does it naturally follow that something written by, say Klein, Ullmann or Viennese composer Robert Fürstenthal, who has two lieder in the “Into the Light” concert, and who escaped to the United States and lived to the age of 96, bears some personal-cultural seasoning and colors sewn into its fabric?

“What makes any work of art a Jewish work?” Cohen-Shalit muses. “Is it the identity of the artist, composer, or the identity of the work?”

There are some concrete examples to be had. “When Mozart composed a work for a cantorial chorus at a synagogue in Vienna – Mozart was a totally Christian composer – does that make that Jewish music? When [Jewish-American composer and musicologist] Robert Levin completed Mozart’s Requiem, does that make it a Jewish work? It is a complex issue.”

There will probably not be too many questions of that nature asked about a large proportion of Thursday’s repertoire. “A lot of the music relates to Yiddish culture, on the folk music level. I think people will get that,” Cohen-Shalit suggests.

Without putting too fine a point on it, “Into the Light” is an important event in the annals of Jewish music and the acknowledgment thereof.

“We realize that it is crucial to have this music performed on a stage,” says Fisher. “My nonprofit is producing the event,” he adds, referencing the SWJM.

Fisher says Thursday’s concert is designed as the harbinger for an ongoing slew of activities which, he hopes, will contribute to informing the world about the wealth of Jewish musical riches that are yet to pervade our collective and individual consciousness. “This is a very minimalistic concert, with only three artists on the stage. We are planning much bigger things, including orchestral concerts. We are starting a process of bringing this music to the stage. That’s what it’s all about.”

Fisher notes that there is a whole host of Jewish musical gems lying around in archives just begging to be dusted off and given a new lease on life.

“There is a vast amount of music that has been discovered over the past three or four decades. All of it is resident in archives around the world, including a very big one in London. But music in archives is not going to be talked about by journalists such as yourself. Bringing something to life is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. We have to bring the music into the light,” he says, deftly bringing us round to the concert moniker and theme. “It is great music, but it is still largely unknown. The time has come to bring it into the light.”

Cohen-Shalit naturally concurs and says he is keen to share the fruits of Jewish composers’ labors, regardless of whether they were created under more obvious, or more subtly applied, duress. “There is some wonderful work in the program. It is not just a matter of getting the music out there because of the Holocaust context. The world simply needs to hear the music.” ❖

For more information: https://www.jewish-studies.org/congress-2



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