Thursday, May 25, 2017

Music of Remembrance: Good Intentions Can Go Only So Far

Last night the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosted the third visit to the Bay Area by the Seattle-based musicians of Music of Remembrance (MOR). MOR’s motto, which is part of its logo, is “ensuring that the voices of musical witness be heard.” The objects of witness are the many instances of man’s inhumanity to man, with special attention given to the Holocaust. In addition to giving concert performances, MOR releases recordings, presents educational programs, and commissions new works.

Last night’s program, entitled Mirror of Memory, presented the results of two of those commissions. The second half was dominated by the Bay Area premiere of “to open myself, to scream” by Mary Kouyoumdjian, following up on its world premiere in Seattle this past Sunday. The commissioned work on the first half of the program was “The Seed of Dream,” composed by Lori Laitman in 2004. Both halves of the program also examined the legacy of Yiddish song. In the first half mezzo Catherine Cook sang six of these songs, all of which had originated in the Vilna Ghetto, arranged by Jaroslavas Cechanovicus for accompaniment by two violins (Mikhail Shmidt and Artur Girsky), viola (Susan Gulkis Assadi), cello (Walter Gray), and bass (Jonathan Green). The second half concluded with six Yiddish songs and dances arranged for string quartet and clarinet (Laura DeLuca) by Betty Olivero, created in 1997 as incidental music for a screening of the silent film The Golem: How He Came into the World, created by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener. Finally, the evening opened with one of the compositions to come out of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Hans Krása’s “Tanec,” a dance movement scored for string trio (with Shmidt taking the violin part).

In terms of both composition and execution, Krása’s trio turned out to be the most satisfying offering of the evening. The score had just the right undercurrent level of irony to reflect the composer’s tenuous state. Theresienstadt was a transfer camp, a “holding venue” for those who would be sent for extermination at Treblinka and Auschwitz. Krása died at Auschwitz, whose other victims from Theresienstadt included Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas, the year after he composed “Tanec.” Shmidt, Assadi, and Gray gave this music an attentive and expressive reading. Each performer had a clear sense of how to blend with his/her colleagues, making this the most satisfying account of a chamber music ensemble, rather than the work of a gathering of individual players.

At the other extreme was “to open myself, to scream,” conceived as a reflection on the story of Romani artist Ceija Stojka, who managed to survive three concentration camps and lived to the healthy age of 79, dying in Vienna in 2013. Kouyoumdjian scored the piece for a small chamber ensemble playing against an electronic track of sampled passages supplied by each of the members along with Kouyoumdjian’s voice. It is structured in four uninterrupted movements; but there was little sense of connection to the titles of those movements (each of which was inspired by one of Stojka’s paintings) in last night’s reading of the score.

Instead, the dominance of DeLuca’s clarinet work made it almost impossible for the informed listener to avoid thinking about Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time), while the overwhelming presence of the electronic samples suggests that Messiaen’s quartet is being run over by one of Steve Reich’s “Different Trains.” If that were not enough, Kouyoumdjian’s score was played against the projection of a visual design by Kevork Mourad in which images (which may or may not have have been based on Stojka’s art) were subjected to real-time warping, overlays, and dissolves that turned out to make for a thoroughly aggressive assault on the listener’s sense of vision. “Scream” was definitely the operative verb in the conception of this composition; but the scream turned out to be inordinately sustained and only weakly modulated, almost as if the only objective of the composer was to convey Stojka’s personal pain.

However, if Kouyoumdjian’s reflection of Stojka was hard to take, at least it was not as overloaded with clichéd gestures as was “The Seed of Dream,” a setting of five poems by Abraham Sutzkever written in the Vilna Ghetto. Laitman set English translations of these poems (with no mention of the translator in the program book); and Cook did her best to endow the weaknesses of the score with expressive signification. Nevertheless, there was the disquieting sense that, while there was much for Sutzkever’s poems to say, even in translation, Laitman was using them only as syllables on which to hang her notes.

Still, listening to Cook sing in English was far more satisfying than her approach to the Vilna Ghetto songs in Yiddish. Here in San Francisco we have the good fortune to be able to listen to someone like Sharon Bernstein, Cantor of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, who has not only a solid command of Yiddish but also the necessary discursive (as opposed to operatic) approach to delivery. By failing to grasp the subtle changes in vowel sounds that differentiated Yiddish from German, Cook made these songs sound like some weirdly arcane corner of the German lieder repertoire; and the result did no favors to either the music or Cook’s skills in the performance of art song. In contrast Olivero’s instrumental approaches to songs and dances were more consistent to the spirit of Yiddishkeit, and they concluded the evening with a gentle reminder that brevity is still the soul of wit.

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