The theme of this year's annual Holocaust ceremony -- "The Urgency of Holocaust Remembrance in the Madness of Our Age" -- is reflected in speeches, historical reminiscences, photographic and film exhibitions, artifact displays and musical events, all gripping reminders of the greatest horror to befall the Jewish people in our history.
Two important concerts of Holocaust music express such intense urgency. This coming Friday night, April 20, Cantor Mark Elson of Congregation Shir Ami will share his pulpit with Jason Calloway -- 28-year-old cellist, Shir Ami Bar Mitzvah boy and a graduate of Council Rock High School, the Juilliard School and the University of Southern California. Calloway has assembled three musicians -- pianist, violinist and violist -- to perform a 60-minute program of "Entartete Musik," compositions by Jewish composers whose work was derided by the Nazis as "degenerate art."
Several of these musicians escaped Germany before the full force of the Holocaust, settling in Hollywood as film musicians in the golden age of the American cinema of the 1940s and '50s.
Composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman wrote both chamber pieces and works for large forces in Germany prior to beginning their second careers in California. Others perished in concentration camps, but left behind original manuscripts.
Pittsburgh-based pianist Nancy Rubenstein sparked Calloway's interest in this repertoire. He then founded Music Reborn, an organization dedicated to researching and presenting works by Holocaust composers. Calloway, who considers himself "fortunate to have known Holocaust survivors over the years," says that his life was transformed by his association with David Arben, former associate concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose violin virtuosity saved his own life in a Nazi concentration camp.
Calloway is on a mission to be an advocate for this repertoire: "To play only the standard repertoire is self-indulgent," he declared, adding that this music allows him to create and perpetuate an aspect of Jewish history and culture of great importance.
Attendees of the Shir Ami event, as well as many others in the Greater Philadelphia community, will no doubt be intrigued by "Voices of the Holocaust."
Then, on Sunday afternoon, May 6, another collection of Holocaust music will be presented at the Church of the Holy Trinity, at 19th and Walnut Sts., performed by the Penn State Choral Society -- a 150-member university chorus conducted by Russell Shelley, with vocal soloists and instrumental ensemble.
The extended composition of "Voices" was assembled and arranged by Sheridan Seyfried, a 27-year-old composition student at the Curtis Institute of Music. Seyfried was commissioned by conductor Shelley based on an idea of professor emeritus Philip Klein, a longtime member of the Choral Society.
This 80-minute work -- first composed and performed in 2004 -- contains arrangements of 22 folk songs that reflect Jewish life during the years of World War II. Klein collected these songs and presented both manuscripts and recordings to Seyfried, who created this new large composition.
"I wasn't really prepared for how beautiful these pieces were," he acknowledged. He prepared himself by reading Eli Wiesel's Night, and by traveling to the Dachau concentration camp.
"I can still sense the people who died there," he said.
Seyfried had composed works of much smaller scale, and he admitted to being intimidated by the project's scope. Judging by the recording I heard of the premiere performance in State College three years ago, Seyfried succeeded in mastering the technical demands of a long work for major musical forces and in understanding the emotional power of the material.
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