Discovering a Holocaust Oratorio’s Mass Appeal

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The work by American composer Stephen Paulus will have its Pennsylvania premiere this weekend — at a Cathedral and a Presbyterian Church.

In the annals of threnody, certain works are particularly resonant for their connection to Jewish remembrance. Connoisseurs will know Thomas Beveridge’s “Yizkor Requiem,” which layers the Hebrew Mourner’s Kaddish over the English Lord’s Prayer in tribute to the commonalities of Abrahamic faiths. And Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Dies Irae,” known as the “Auschwitz Oratorio,” is the response of Poland’s leading composer to his country’s most horrific modern episode.

Now the most recent entry in that genre of lamentation is coming to Philadelphia. “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” the Holocaust oratorio by American composer Stephen Paulus, will have its Pennsylvania premiere in two concerts this weekend — at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Friday eve­ning, and on Sunday afternoon at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church.


With the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust this year, “the timing couldn’t be more ideal,” said Jeffrey Brillhart, music director at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, who spearheaded the project in Philadelphia and is coordinating its production. Paulus, he explained, “was driven by the belief that this wasn’t just Judaism’s story — that the world has a responsibility to retell this.”

Tiferet Bet Israel Cantor Elizabeth Shammash, who sings the cantorial solo part in Sunday’s concert, added: “This is a moment for the greater Philadelphia community, Jewish and gentile, to come together and commemorate the Holocaust.”

“To Be Certain of the Dawn” was born as an interfaith gesture. In 2005, the piece was commissioned as a gift from the Minneapolis Basilica to the local Jewish community in commemoration of both the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust and the 40th anniversary of the Vatican II text that renounced Catholic anti-Semitism. In a reflection of both these inspirations and the closeness of Philadelphia’s interfaith community, “To Be Certain” will be performed by combined Jewish and Christian ensembles.

Paulus’ massive score requires the adult and children’s choirs from the cathedral – which draws from 230 area parishes — as well as those from Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church and Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, a total of more than 180 singers. They will be joined by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Shammash and five vocal soloists: soprano Elizabeth Weigle, mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis, tenor William Lin, baritone Randal Scarlatta and tenor Michael Hogue.

“It is definitely designed to make a statement,” said Hogue, who helped organize the event in his role as director of operations for Concerts at the Cathedral Basilica. “It’s a deeply Jewish work, but it’s a work on a mass level.”

Hogue and Brillhart felt the timing was right for a production on the scale of “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” which is ambitious financially as well as musically. Brillhart, whose choir has performed a number of pieces by Paulus, came across the oratorio score a few years ago “and my first thought was, ‘We can’t afford to do it,’ ” he recalled. “The staging is hugely expensive.” But as the Great Recession ebbed and the piece lingered in his mind, Brillhart realized that Bryn Mawr could finally summon the resources for a cast of hundreds.

Meanwhile, Hogue sought a program befitting the Cathedral Basilica’s 150th anniversary. He observed that prominent area ensembles were pushing the aesthetic envelope: Opera Philadelphia is premiering two works this season, and the Philadelphia Orchestra has long championed new composers.

A noted concert singer himself, Hogue will take over the cantorial role in the Friday night concert, since Shammash will not perform on Shabbat. Hogue admitted that the scheduling for that first performance was infelicitous: “We could have died when we were in the office and fact-checking and that came up,” he recalled. It was too late to move the concert, but Hogue is confident that both stagings will draw on a diverse audience for new music.

With a libretto in Hebrew, German and English, Paulus’ oratorio is challenging for singers — but musically accessible and engaging for audiences, according to those involved. “It’s definitely in the genre of contemporary music, but it’s romantic and so lyrical,” explained Shammash, who is also active as a concert singer. “Obviously the subject matter is so moving, and Paulus set it beautifully; it just tears at the heart.”

The work’s elegiac tone is particularly resonant given Paulus’ unexpected death in October at the age of 63. Throughout the oratorio, iconic Hebrew prayers — from the Shema to the Mourner’s Kaddish to Shabbat blessings — are interspersed with quotations from Holocaust survivors and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born theologian, touching on themes that include survivors’ guilt.

Meanwhile, the soloists portray children reacting innocently to the privations of ghetto life — debating whose turn it is to wear the family’s only coat, for instance — while a choir interrupts, intoning the legal restrictions placed on Jews: “Jews may not attend school,” they chant at one point. “Jews may not imagine. Jews may not dream.”

But motifs of hope recur — most notably the biblical quote, “You should love your neighbor as yourself,” which was found on the only stone left standing from the demolition of one Berlin synagogue, and which is featured repeatedly throughout the oratorio. In the oratorio, the phrase, rendered in Hebrew and German in a church-style hymn, calls attention to the universality of human goodwill.

“It anchors the audience with a sense of understanding — that God knows everybody intimately, and we are all connected,” said Hogue. “It’s the idea of everybody being together, but also having our own ideas, our own traditions with that greater loving connection.”

IF YOU GO

“To Be Certain of the Dawn”
March 22 at 4 p.m.
at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church
625 Montgomery Ave., Bryn Mawr
bmpc.org; 610-525-2821
 

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