The inaugural concert of the Molly Blank Jewish Concert Series took place this past Saturday at The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum. The three-concert series is a collaboration between the Museum and the Atlanta Opera. Saturday’s concert was part of a two-day commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass,” a series of attacks against Jews in Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on November 19-10,1938. The name comes from the shards of glass that littered the streets in the aftermath.
In a talk with ArtsATL last month, Atlanta Opera Music Director Arthur Fagen recalled that the origins of the series came at a dinner hosted by Judith and Mark Taylor, where Breman Executive Director Aaron Bergerand and former board president, Joyce Schlesinger, were guests. “The Holocaust Museum interests me because I’m a son of Holocaust survivors,” said Fagen. “My parents were on Schindler’s list. I thought it would be great of we could have a partnership between the Atlanta Opera and the Bremen Museum. After the dinner I met with Joyce and Aaron, and we talked about what the possibilities could be.”
The music chosen for the concert was not about Kristallnacht itself, but was all Holocaust-related in some manner, either by direct connection or by sentiment. Multimedia was effectively used to tighten the relationship between the music and Kristallnachtt. Images were projected on a screen at the back of the stage of destroyed synagogues and ransacked Jewish businesses and homes. Images and texts about Gideon Klein and Hans Krása, composers who were both Holocaust victims, were displayed. Brief videos of survivors Herbert Kohn and Benjamin Hirsch who both witnessed the event, were shown in two intervals between music.
Works for string trio by Klein and Krása were performed by three principal musicians of the Atlanta Opera Orchestra: violinist Pete Ciaschini, violist William Johnston and cellist Charae Kreuger. They performed Klein’s String Trio — completed only nine days before he was shipped to Auschwitz along with four other composers, including Krása. Krása’s “Passacaglia and Fugue,” likewise his last composition, was also performed.
Mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman and pianist Götz Payer performed a set of traditional Yiddish songs, plus songs by Ilse Weber, Emmerich Kálmán, Maurice Ravel and Payer himself. Schneiderman is an American-born singer who, after formal studies, moved to Germany and joined the Heidelberg Opera Ensemble in 1982. Two years later, she became a member of the Staatstheater Stuttgart and continues there today. Payer is also connected to Staatstheater Stuttgart. They performed four songs from a CD they recorded, Makh tsu di Eygelekh. Jiddische Lieder. One of them, “Makh tsu di Eygelekh,” was the very first song Schneiderman learned as a child.
Payer’s song was a setting of the poem “I never saw another butterfly” by Pavel Friedman, a young man who was incarcerated at Theresienstadt and later died at Auschwitz. It was specifically composed by Payer for this concert.
Not only was it a premiere, since this was Payer’s first visit to the U.S., this concert was his American debut as well. Payer’s setting opens eerily, with the poem allowed to contribute its rhythms directly to the vocal line. Several times in the piece, Payer inserted an emphatic low single piano note, which Payer crossed his right hand over to play, and it sounded like an ominous bass drum. Payer’s piece made a favorable impression.
Weber was a poet who was best known for her songs and plays for Jewish children, and the Hungarian-born Kálmán for his popular cabaret songs and light operettas. Maurice Ravel was not himself Jewish, but had strong connections in the community. Schneiderman and Payer closed the concert with his “L’enigme eternelle” sung with the alternative Yiddish text rather than the French, and his brief setting of the traditional “Kaddisch” prayer.
Prior to the auditorium opening its doors, I visited the Holocaust Gallery next to it. The range and variety of historical images and objects contained intimate, but densely adorned labyrinth, is striking. There was not time to see everything, much less examine in depth. Readers are urged to visit the gallery, and take time to look closely at its meaningful message.