‘Tell Your Story’
While it may not seem like the breaking of glass windows at Jewish-owned buildings by the Nazis would have inspired any creativity at all, two upcoming concerts at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda prove that it takes a lot more than that to quiet art.
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, more than 300 people from 22 area synagogues will perform a concert entitled Voices of the Holocaust on Nov. 10. The night before, an original opera called “Lost Childhood” will make its debut before a full orchestra.
Sunday night at 7:30, a concert featuring cantors and youth and adult choirs from the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia area will perform a musical work organized in five parts. It has been arranged from 22 original melodies written by Jews while they were living in the ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust.
“It’s a major undertaking. We are talking about a lot of volunteer choirs. Each group has to sing some Yiddish, and not everyone is comfortable with that,” said Cantor Laura Croen of Temple Sinai. She, along with Cantors Marshall Kapell of Congregation B’nai Tzedek and Susan Berkson, who teaches at Howard County Community College, are co-chairs of the event.
“It’s going to be amazing,” added Berkson, who has been cantor at Temple Emanuel in Kensington and Congregation Ohr Chadesh in Damascus. “All the cantors each are doing a solo or a duet. It’s going to be a very, very big thrill.”
“But there are moments when we will all be singing together,” said Croen.
Voices of the Holocaust marks the third time area synagogues have performed together. They also did for Israel’s 60th birthday and the 350th anniversary of Jewish music in America.
Performing along with the synagogue choirs will be singers from Juniata College in Pennsylvania. The Columbia Orchestra will accompany the singers, and Jason Love, a conductor and cellist from Howard County, will lead the entire production.
A discussion with arranger Sheridan Seyfried and moderated by Tara Sonenshine, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, will precede the concert. Following that, there will be a short service to commemorate Kristallnacht.
About two years ago, Berkson was visiting her son at Juniata College and attended a school concert with music from the Holocaust.
“We were just amazed how wonderful it was,” she said, adding that the concert became the seed that eventually led to the upcoming communitywide concert.
Individual choirs have been practicing separately and will only get together as a group two times before the actual concert.
The night before, an opera that has been 16 years in the making will be performed. It is a collaboration by two cousins and tells the story of a troubled Jew, who was a child during the Holocaust, and a younger German from a prominent family of Nazi sympathizers. It is loosely based on the book “The Lost Childhood” by Yehuda Nir, but it mainly centers around a fictitious meeting of the two as adults.
Composer Janice Hamer, who teaches at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and librettist Mary Azrael of Baltimore, who writes poetry and teaches poetry writing at Johns Hopkins University, collaborated on this production.
Azrael, the mother of two and grandmother of three, has lived in Baltimore and has written poetry most of her life. She has had a few books published, some poems set to music and is a co-editor of “Passager Journal” and an editor at Passager Books, a press that focuses on the work ofwriters over 50.
After reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” as a child, she knew at once she wanted to be a writer.
“I got from her that it’s really important to tell your story, because the world can change at any minute,” Azrael said about Frank.
Azrael had collaborated once before with Hamer and won a national award. “So we were kind of giddy,” and they thought they should keep working together, Hamer with the music and Azrael with the story and words.
They decided to write an opera, thinking it would consume a year or two of their lives. They spoke of doing something about Anne Frank or some other child who had been in hiding during World War II.
A set of coincidences followed, and Hamer met Nir, who gave her a copy of his memoirs, and Gottfied Wagner, the great-grandson of composer Richard Wagner. Hamer and Azrael are fascinated by the way both men’s childhood experiences continued to affect their lives.
Nir’s anger arose from his youth when he had to pose as a Polish Catholic during World War II after his father was killed by the Nazis. Wagner was horrified by his family’s strong anti-Semitic views, which he continues to fight.
“They shared a kind of anger,” said Hamer, whose parents live in Rockville. She noted that Wagner has nothing to do with his family. And Nir “called himself an angry Jew,” explaining he was not a victim but a veteran of the war. “He had kind of an aggressive stance.”
Azrael began writing the words (the libretto) after reading Nir’s book.
While Nir and Wagner “are really good friends,” she chose to place them in conflict. Their story, she explained, deals with the question, “If you are not my enemy, who are you? Who am I? This is not only a story about Jewish persecution.”
She wrote what she felt, imagining the rhythms and spirit of the music and what instruments would be played as she went along. Azrael plays piano and hammered dulcimer and considers poetry the closest word form to music.
Meanwhile, she spoke with Hamer as she progressed, working to “inspire Janice enough to write the music for it.”
Then Hamer worked on the music, hearing “the sounds in my mind, all the colors,” she said.
The result is a score of 473 pages that took about 10 years to write, five years to orchestrate and another two years to proof read. The women raised $100,000, too.
The pair utilized lots of workshops sponsored by American Opera Projects in New York. This gave them a chance to hear the work sung by top singers and get audience reactions. The opera was performed using just a piano during a summer festival in Tel Aviv in 2007. The concert by the National Philharmonic at Strathmore Music Center on Nov. 9 will be the first performance with full orchestra and soloists. National Philharmonic will make a recording of that performance, which the two women will send around hoping to convince opera companies take it on.
Suzanne Pollak writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.