A Riveting, Eternally Relevant Holocaust Remembrance from the Cassatt String Quartet
The Nazis murdered approximately 14,700 children out of the 15,000 interned at the Terezin transit camp. Of course, this happened after using the camp as a showcase for how well the prisoners throughout the death camps were ostensibly being treated. Red Cross observers, for example, were shown musical and theatrical performances by captives there. As documented in Hannelore Brenner’s The Girls From Room 28 and elsewhere, Terezin contained a vital artistic community – it might seem laughable to call it a “scene,” but that’s what it was – in the brief months before most of its victims were shipped off to be killed. Thursday night at Symphony Space, the Cassatt String Quartet paid tribute to those performers’ extraordinary fortitude under the worst kind of duress.
Opening a concert with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 runs the risk of rendering the rest of the program anticlimactic, or even redundant: after that work’s harrowing cinematics, there’s just about nowhere to go but down. That the ensemble – who are in residence at Symphony Space and making the absolute most of it – managed to avoid that pitfall speaks to the power and resonance of the rest of the bill, and how well they played it. Titled Music for a Vanished World, the show also featured Terezin prisoner Viktor Ullmann’s Quartet No. 3, contemporary American composer Gerald Cohen’s Playing for Our Lives, and a conversation midway through with eloquent, charismatic Terezin survivor and author Ela Weissberger, famous for her role there playing the cat in several stagings of the musical Brundibar.
Taken out of context, Ullmann’s work is fascinating, an intricate, strikingly modern web of countermelodies that run the gamut from unabashedly somber to a joyous romp at the end as everybody rushes out through the gates. As a work made under circumstances as cruel as they were, it’s an extraordinary achievement. A sort of more defiant counterpart to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, the quartet took it full throttle at the end, leaving no doubt that this was one big “sieg heil” right in Der Fuhrer’s face. Cohen’s suite, a recent composition, worked austere, sometimes acidic permutations on three themes: Beryozhkele (Birch Tree), the plaintive Jewish folk song; the lullaby from Brundibar; and the Dies Irae section of Verdi’s Requiem, another piece that was actually performed at Terezin. Working its way through them, stately and methodically, with tinges of horror, the suite’s most memorable section was when Cohen took the lullaby – a rather saccharine, schlocky melody – and twisted it into a cartoonish menace.
As for the Shostakovich, it was as shattering as it possibly could have been: one can only hope that this performance might have been recorded. One of the most vivid and chilling pieces of music ever written, it is as cutting-edge and difficult to play today as it was over fifty years ago when it was premiered. The familiarity of the narrative makes its introductory lament, tumbling microtonal chase scene, satanically phantasmagorical puppet’s dance and gunshot-ridden dirge even more resonant. The ensemble played as a single instrument: there were places, especially early on, where it was impossible to tell who was playing what, among violinists Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violist Sarah Adams and celllist Nicole Johnson. The swooping tumble of bodies being chased down by the gestapo in the second movement fell to the violins to echo an endless warning siren, over and over, and they did it relentlessly. As the piece grew quieter and more elegaic, it fell to Johnson to carry many of the work’s most plaintive melodies, which she did with equal parts grace and stunned horror. The group seemed moved almost to the point of tears by the end, a feeling clearly shared by the audience: in an era when Iran executes women for blasphemy, drones rain death down on weddings in Iraq and Palestine, and the prison at Guantanamo is still open, this quartet could not be more relevant. The Cassatt String Quartet return auspiciously to Symphony Space early next spring; watch this space. Happy Hanukah, everybody.
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