Dallas — A study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day in April revealed that 41 percent of all Americans and 66 percent of those aged 18 to 34 could not correctly identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp or extermination camp.
Faced with these dismaying statistics indicating that, as the last Holocaust survivors die, our collective memory of the worst genocide in human history is dying with them, many small voices cry out, encouraging us to remember not just the horrors of the Holocaust, but some of the individual lives cut short by the Nazis. One of those small voices is the aptly named Voices of Change, whose April 29 concert “Silent Music,” at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium, featured music about the Holocaust as well as music composed by men who died in the camps.
We’ve long understood that creating art, whether literature or visual art or music, is key to being remembered after we’re gone. John Keats, who would himself die of consumption at age 25, addresses a decorated Greek vase in his 1819 “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “When old age shall this generation waste,/ Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a friend to man.” He observes the urn’s permanence in the face of his own inevitable mortality, and acknowledges that art can provide comfort when we cope with life’s hardships.
But even poor, dying Keats could not imagine hardship on a scale of that faced by residents of the Nazi camps. Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, and Erwin Schulhoff were three composers murdered by the Nazis whose work was performed by the Voices of Change musicians.
Both Haas’ “Four Songs on Chinese Poetry” and Klein’s String Trio were composed in the camps, and thus are extraordinarily poignant meditations on confinement. Haas’ songs, for baritone and piano, were written for musicians who, like Haas, were imprisoned at Theresienstadt. Originally written in Czech, but sung on Sunday in English translation by David Grogan, with Charlene Sutton Lotz collaborating on piano, the songs are typical of the period, with big intervals and a wide, demanding range for the soloist. Grogan ably navigated that range with his round, substantial voice. While the songs are often melancholy, with themes of concealment and of lost love, the last of the four songs ends with optimistic, cheerful “la la las,” belying the gravity of the composer’s situation. The first performance of these songs took place in April 1944 in Theresienstadt. By October, Haas had been murdered at Auschwitz.
Similarly, Gideon Klein, who was only 25 when he died in a Nazi work camp, composed his String Trio in Theresienstadt. It was destined to be his final composition. Voices of Change musicians Maria Schleuning (violin), Barbara Sudweeks (viola) and Kari Kettering (cello) performed this excellent if somewhat conservative, by 1944 standards, piece. It is good but not strikingly excellent—exactly what we might expect from a 25-year-old with prodigious talent, still working to find his own voice. That seeming search for an original voice, and the sense that Klein is so close to brilliance, made listening to this trio especially heartbreaking. What might Klein have accomplished had it not been for his murder? That is a question we can ask six million times over, to be sure. In this case it seems nearly certain that Klein would have had a fine career as a composer, had he lived.
Haas and Klein’s melancholy works were in stark contrast to Erwin Schulhoff’s 1927 Flute Sonata. This piece, written during happier times, received a compelling performance by Helen Blackburn (flute) and Liudmila Georgievskaya (piano). Here is heartbreak of a different kind—this jaunty but musically lightweight piece has no shadow over it, no hint yet of what will come. Blackburn’s tone is as vibrantly and variously colored as one might wish, and Georgievskaya is certainly one of the most capable collaborative pianists in the area, so they brought a delightful flair to Schulhoff’s tonal and traditional sonata.
The program began and ended with music composed in remembrance. Boris Pigovat’s 1997 “Silent Music” for viola and harp, the opening piece of the concert, is melodic, gorgeous, and profoundly sad. Violist Barbara Sudweeks produced an effective, warm sound, while harpist Emily Levin excelled, evoking bells and, finally, an explosion, contradicting the notion that the harp’s sound is merely delicately beautiful.
The program ended with a 1988 Voices of Change commission, Simon Sargon’s Shema. It consists of five songs to poems by Primo Levi, performed by soprano Rainelle Kraus, flutist Helen Blackburn, cellist Kari Kettering, clarinetist Paul Garner, and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya. Kraus’ voice was nearly too big for Caruth’s acoustics, but the other musicians balanced her admirably, creating a variety of interesting textures.
This was in many ways a somber, heartbreaking program, but at the same time, an essential one. One song, one sonata, one string trio at a time will remind us: Never Again.