Preserving the Musical Legacy of Those Silenced


By David Mermelstein

Published June 11, 2004, issue of June 11, 2004.
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Honoring the dead always has been a complicated affair, made all the more difficult when the fallen are victims rather than heroes. Physical monuments engender the most debate, probably because they are, in theory, permanent. Musical tributes have produced less anguish. This may be because they don’t elicit much notice, or people think such efforts ephemeral and unworthy of argument.

Regardless, victims of the Holocaust occasionally have been the subject of musical memorials. Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw,” composed in 1947 and the last of that composer’s orchestral works, is the best known of them. The most recent is Thomas Pasatieri’s “Letter to Warsaw,” which had its premiere at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall last month.

Seattle is not exactly known for its ties to decimated shtetls, yet under the auspices of an organization called Music of Remembrance, the Holocaust has been honored in music twice annually for six seasons now. The project owes its existence to Mina Miller, a local pianist who founded Music of Remembrance in 1998 to preserve the musical legacy of those who died and suffered in the Holocaust.

Nearly all the music performed under Music of Remembrance’s auspices is little known, and several programs have featured works commissioned by the organization. Pasatieri’s is the latest of these, with pieces by Lori Laitman and Paul Schoenfield forthcoming. And, according to Miller, a work memorializing homosexual victims of the Third Reich is in the works.

Over the years, Miller has offered music by composers silenced by the Holocaust (Pavel Haas, Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Krasa), those who survived it (Kurt Weill, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Herman Berlinski) and those born Jewish in its wake (Steve Reich, Osvaldo Golijov). This season’s final concert, though, was devoted entirely to the piece by Pasatieri, a 58-year-old American with no direct ties to either Judaism or the Holocaust.

Yet Pasatieri is no stranger to Music of Remembrance. His “Fragments of Isabella,” inspired by the memoirs of Auschwitz survivor Isabella Leitner, had its premiere at a Music of Remembrance concert in 2002. In any event, Pasatieri’s credentials as a composer are sterling — associations with Nadia Boulanger, Darius Milhaud and the Juilliard School — and leading presenters such as the Houston Grand Opera have commissioned him. Two operas based on Chekhov plays, “The Seagull” (1974) and “Three Sisters” (1979), are perhaps his best-known works.

For “Letter to Warsaw,” Pasatieri interspersed settings of six texts by Pola Braun with seven instrumental interludes, concluding the work with a setting of the Kaddish. Typical of Pasatieri’s work, the music was easy on the ears: tuneful, accessible and atmospheric. Generally it was well matched to the texts, at least two of which were originally self-standing songs with music, now lost, by Braun.

Little is know about Braun, a Polish writer and cabaret performer. She was probably born near Warsaw in approximately 1910. Two of the poems set by Pasatieri — “Jew” and “Tsurik a Heym,” its title improperly translated — were composed during Braun’s confinement in the Warsaw Ghetto. The others — “Mother,” “Letter to Warsaw,” “An Ordinary Day” and “Moving Day” — were written at the Majdanek concentration camp, where Braun died in 1943.

In general, Music of Remembrance concerts use local musicians lacking national or international reputations. But this concert was different. It featured soprano Jane Eaglen, and Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony, led an ensemble of 12 instrumentalists, including Miller at the piano.

Though an announcement was made before the concert that Eaglen was suffering from “a severe cold,” the claim was nonsense. She sang warmly and easily, and with the big, clear sound that one associates with this Met stalwart. She sang in English, which is how Pasatieri set the texts, but one couldn’t help wishing that the words had been left in Polish, as Braun wrote them, or at least translated more poetically.

Pasatieri evoked the era in music, recalling cabarets, military marches and doleful lullabies. Often lush and lyrical, his score sometimes suggested a pastoral American aesthetic, but there also were moments that sounded like Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Occasionally, Pasatieri included more pop-oriented figurations reminiscent of 1950s American musicals or Michel Legrand-like piano riffs. Amazingly, “Letter to Warsaw” is already available on a Naxos American Classics CD, with Eaglen, Schwarz and all but one of the performers who played the premiere.

Individual responses to such music, as to all music, will vary. Though I found Pasatieri’s earnest tribute to the enormity of the Holocaust engaging and attractive sounding, I was not especially moved by it. But then, can anything crafted by man — be it architecture, sculpture, literature or music — effectively atone for what is wrought by the darker angels of our nature?

David Mermelstein writes about music for the New York Times.

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