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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Holocaust Story with a Happy Ending?

It’s a story straight out of Hollywood, except that it’s true. Jaap Polak survived the Nazi death camps with his wife and his girlfriend – barely. Tuesday night at the Jewish Theological Seminary auditorium, their improbable story was brought to life in chilling detail in a semi-staged performance of the new opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with music by Gerald Cohen and book by Deborah Brevoort. The narrative, vividly portrayed via both music and dialogue, is rich with cruel irony and grim humor but also the irrepressible joie de vivre that kept Polak, his wife Manja and girlfriend Ina alive despite staggering odds against them. It has a happy ending, which at this performance moved several audience members to tears.

Jaap Polak, now 100, and his wife Ina, now 90, reside in Scarsdale, and attend the congregation where Cohen is cantor, a connection that springboarded the opera. Both husband and wife were in the audience, and remain sharp as a whistle. Two years from now, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. That such a thing would be possible considering that the former Amsterdam residents were kidnapped by the Nazis, first sent to the Westerbork transit camp and then on to Bergen-Belsen in 1944 defies the imagination. Beth Greenberg’s stage direction was understated and fit the material – one doesn’t expect dancing in a piece about the Holocaust. Baritone Robert Balonek was fervent and winningly steadfast in his portrayal of the irrepressible Jaap. Soprano Ilana Davidson radiated hope against hope that transcended the aptly drab costuming (everyone has a yellow Star of David pinned to their coats). Among the supporting cast, soprano Cherry Duke brought a sardonic edge to her role as semi-reliable interlocutor, passing furtive love notes between Jaap and Ina.

Cohen’s music follows a natural, conversational rhythm, and because of that, must be murderously difficult to play. Perhaps with a nod to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble Cohen pulled together – clarinetist Vasko Dukovski, cellist Chris Finckel, violinist Sasha Margolis and pianist Lynn Baker – rose to the occasion, nimbly conducted by Ari Pelto. The vocal melodies are not particularly cantabile, which makes sense considering the overwhelming sense of impending doom that settles in with the opening scene in Amsterdam, a party that quickly goes to hell when the Nazis show up and abduct Ina’s boyfriend Rudi (portrayed by baritone Nils Neubert as a comforting figure who recurs to Ina in surreal, dreamlike interludes) and take him off to be murdered. For the most part, Cohen eschews fullscale horror in favor of a bleakly monochromatic, relentless unease, waiting until the cast arrives at Belsen to let the strings rise with a Bernard Herrmann-esque, shivery terror. Cohen’s cantorial background informs and enriches the larger-scale choral segments, notably a mesmerizingly hypnotic, intricately contrapuntal crescendo toward the end which interpolates a triumphant Passover theme within murky, brooding, enveloping sonics. His characterization of the Nazis works mechanical, coldly monotonous circular motives: the banality of evil captured in sound.

Brevoort powerfully evokes the sheer surrealism and the increasing sense of dehumanization and despair that befalls the cast, but also moments where humanity emerges triumphant when least expected. Lisette, who at first betrays the burgeoning affair between the two lovebirds, has a change of heart and becomes their ally again, enabling Ina, who’s been given a menial job in the commandant’s office, to steal a pencil for Jaap so that he can continue to write her clandestine letters. The affair between them unwinds with not a little suspense, especially since Jaap’s wife and Ina’s father are both in the camp and prove to be a considerable impediment. In particular, the character of Manja is underwritten. The implication that she was a shrew with a wandering eye doesn’t go very far, and the reality – as Jaap Polak emphasized in a brief address to the audience afterward – is that she was the unsung heroine of this twisted adventure, nursing him back to health from a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever and then handing him off to Ina to live happily ever after. She deserves better. Somewhere there’s a circus rock band who ought to do the song “I Lost My Husband to a Rich Younger Woman in a Nazi Death Camp.”

As far as getting the message of this piece across, it would work better as a musical than an opera, which is not to say that Cohen should rewrite it as Springtime for Hitler. As it is now, the lyrics are likely more easily understood by regular operagoers than by general audiences: all too often, a particular nuanced moment, a shift in the plotline or even a punchline get lost in arioso vocal pyrotechnics. Considering the talent of the cast onstage, it’s a good gamble that they’d be equally capable of rendering the story in a more musically accessible, less stylized manner. Those who buy into the argument that in the age of microphones and vocal individualism, the bel canto style of singing has reached the end of the line, will probably agree with that statement. Those who don’t probably won’t. And it’s an argument that’s probably academic, anyway, since where this is ultimately bound is most likely the big screen. Steven Spielberg, are you out there?

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May 2, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

December 8, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Grneta Duo+ at Bechstein Hall, NYC 5/27/10

The concert was billed as something of a wild and crazy night, but it was as much about the strength and intelligence of the playing and the compositions as it was about raw excitement. The Grneta Duo+ dedicate themselves to preserving the dual clarinet tradition, which isn’t as uncommon as it might seem, particularly in eastern Europe. Clarinetist Vasko Dukovski won first prize at the International Woodwind Competition at Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, which in the clarinet world is sort of the equivalent of being named guitarist of the year at jambase. His fellow reedman and Juilliard pal Ismail Lumanovski is one of the world’s foremost improvisers in any style of music, perhaps most notably with the New York Gypsy All-Stars. The “+” in the group is pianist Alexandra Joan, a perfect addition with her edgy intensity, confidently wide-ranging virtuosity and also a degree of gravitas. It’s not hard to imagine her in rehearsal: “C’mon, guys, let’s get serious.” As much as this was an evening of sophisticatedly tongue-in-cheek fun, there were just as many moments of flat-out, riveting power.

The trio opened with Bartok’s Romanian Dances, a suite of fairly simple themes that gave the clarinets plenty of opportunity to playfully blend and bend their tones. Dukovski and Joan would revisit a similar suite, Pablo de Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs later on, Dukovski airing out his upper register boisterously over Joan’s cantabile glimmer. The first of two world premieres, Gerald Cohen’s Grneta Variations very cleverly worked permutations of a cantorial theme (without any particular liturgical connotation, the composer explained beforehand). A recurrent fanfare with the clarinets grew with increasing degrees of disquiet, juxtaposed against a series of increasingly more comedic motifs; Joan handled her score’s tricky rhythms with a nimble aplomb worthy of Dave Brubeck.

Night at the Kafana, by Nicholas Csicsko was premiered by Lumanovski at Carnegie Hall last year. Interpolating several famous Balkan folk themes within a sometimes bracing, sometimes otherworldly architecture, it hinted at a dance, morphed into a big ballad and then a matter-of-factly nail-biting rondo that the duo of Lumanovski and Joan approached with a nonchalantly singleminded intensity.

Lumanovski then went off-program, leading Dukovski in an improvisation that awed the crowd: both clarinetists are Macedonian, so Dukovski was instantly, seemingly intuitively in on his bandmate’s sizzling, rhythmically dizzying flights, eventually moving from providing a pulse to join in the whirlwind of savage chromatic fun. The last two pieces were a study in contasts, Mohammed Fairouz’ Ughiat Mariam (another world premiere) stoically, stately and soulfully expanded on an understatedly brooding Arabic theme, while Serbian clarinetist/composer Ante Grgin’s Hameum Suite became a delightfully counterintuitive dialogue between two very distinct clarinet voices, Dukovski following Lumanovski’s most brilliantly blazing passage of the night with a suave deviousness, as if to say, “uh uh, that’s not how it’s done” and then picking up with the same lightning attack when least expected while Joan anchored the work with an unaffected plaintiveness. She’s a leading advocate of the music of George Enesco, and that influence could be felt strongly here.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment