MUSIC
Fri, 02/13/2009
Special To The Jewish Week
Resurrection: Two classical ensembles and a new Web site pay tribute to the music of the Shoah. Holocaust scholars and intellectuals in allied fields have argued for most of the past six and a half decades whether there was such a thing as a cultural resistance to the Shoah. Did creating works of art in the confines of Terezin constitute a rebuke to the Nazis or an unwitting submission? In the face of such brutal inhumanity, how powerful a subversive act could a piece of music, a painting or a performance be? The debate has yet to arrive at an answer. Perhaps there isn’t one. But for musicians who are exploring the legacy of those who lived and died or, infrequently, survived in the camps and the ghettos, there can be only one answer. When the women’s orchestra at the Birkenau death camp played the first movement of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto without identifying its Jewish composer “it was a sign of resistance to the Nazis that they reveled in,” says Barbara Pickhardt. “It has a special significance because it was an act of defiance.” Pickhardt is the director of the Woodstock-based choral group Ars Choralis, which will be performing a concert in tribute to the Birkenau women on March 28 with the apt title, “Music in Desperate Times.” That event is one of several commemorations this spring of the music produced in the camps and ghettos and by composers forced into exile by the Nazis. For Pickhardt, the project began when she first heard about the women’s orchestra several years ago. Although she isn’t Jewish, the story spoke to her powerfully. “I’m a woman and a musician, and I have two daughters who are musicians,” she says forcefully. She knew from the first that she would have to create a program that recognized the courage and strength of those women. But researching the program, immersing herself in the story of the death camp and the 54 women who played in the orchestra over a year-and-a-half period, was not without its cost. “I spent three months in tears,” Pickhardt recalls. “I just couldn’t put it together in my mind. How can one ever understand something like that? I can’t even claim to know what they felt.” The resulting program combines selections the women played in Birkenau, ranging from the Mendelssohn to pieces by Schumann, Chopin and Puccini, with readings drawn from the works of survivors. For the performances, the women don lavender scarves similar to the ones worn by the performers in the original orchestra. When they put on those scarves, Pickhardt says, “They change. It’s a very personally powerful gesture just to put that scarf on in the context of the concert.” For Aleeza Wadler, the artistic director of the Motyl Chamber Ensemble, a quintet whose repertoire consists entirely of music composed by victims of the Nazis, the roots of her dedication to this music are as much intellectual as emotional. Wadler, a violinist who grew up in Roslyn, L.I., was working on a thesis at Boston University on the violinists in the “model” ghetto of Terezin. As part of her research, she became acquainted with Paul Kling, a prodigy who was sent to the ghetto at 15, and Thomas Mandel, another active participant in the cultural life of the camp. Coincidentally, she moved back to New York shortly after, in 2003, and found herself looking for a group in which to play. The result was Motyl (from the Czech word for butterfly, for the poem “The Butterfly” written by Pavel Friedman at Terezin). At first, the group played only music written for the various cultural efforts at Terezin, but that limited them to a potential repertoire of about 50 pieces, so gradually they expanded their mission to include the works of other composers persecuted by the Nazis as Jews, homosexuals, Communists or avant-gardists, the men and women who created what their enemies called “degenerate music.” Four of the five members of the group are Jewish, and the exception, violist Anous Simonian, an Armenian-American, has her own historical link to genocide. In fact, the connection between the Armenian genocide and the Shoah has led the group to explore the possibility of another line of musical development, working with the young Armenian-American composer Eric V. Hachikian, the ensemble’s composer-in-residence. But Wadler remains deeply committed to the group’s focus on music related to the Shoah. “You have to celebrate these composers; it’s our history and I don’t want to play it down,” she says. “Sometimes I feel that people today want ‘Holocaust Lite.’ Promoters are afraid of the word ‘Holocaust.’ I’m not. It’s something I’m passionate about.” Finally, conductor James Conlon, who has dedicated much of his recent activities to the music of Terezin and the banned concert music of the exiled artists, has helped the Orel Foundation to create a valuable online resource documenting this body of work. A significant clearinghouse for information on the subject, including concert schedules and biographical material on the composers and performers of this music, can be found at www.orelfoundation.org. There are numerous essays and articles available there, as well as links to numerous related sites. On the Web site, Conlon writes, “The cliché ‘there are no lost masterpieces’ reveals our own ignorance.” These concerts and this Web site, go some way towards restoring our knowledge of what was nearly lost.   “Music in Desperate Times,” featuring Ars Choralis, conducted by Barbara Pickhardt, will be performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue), Saturday, March 28 at 8 p.m. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.ovationtix.com The Motyl Chamber Ensemble will be performing programs of music by composers exiled from the Third Reich on March 1 at Congregation Habonim (44 W. 66th St.); March 11, 10:30 a.m. at the Daughter of Miriam Center, Clifton, N.J.; April 21 as part of the Yom Hashoah Commemoration at Columbia University; and May 3, 2:30 p.m. at the Hewlett-Woodmere Library, Hewlett, L.I. For more information, go to www.motylchamberensemble.org. The Orel Foundation’s Web site for the banned music and exiled composers from the Third Reich can be found at www.orelfoundation.org.   Like Father, Like Son? Lukas Ligeti Plays On Lukas Ligeti admits that one of the things he didn’t get from his parents was a strong sense of Jewish identity. “I am 100 percent Jewish by family origin, but both my parents’ families were assimilated Jews, not religious at all,” he says of his youth in Vienna. “I grew up very detached from a feeling of being Jewish. I had no religious upbringing or contact with Jewish culture in any tangible way.” What he did get from his father, the famous composer Gyorgy Ligeti, was a profession, one that he will be practicing in his adopted home of New York City quite frequently this spring. “I’m not sure if I would have had the idea it’s possible to be a composer, had my father not been one,” he says with a certain amusement. “It’s not an everyday profession. I might never have had the idea.” As it is, Lukas came to the idea rather late, “perhaps because I thought my father was already good enough. I got done with high school, and you have to ask yourself ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ Before that I stayed away from music.” If he had followed in his mother’s footsteps, he might have become a Freudian psychoanalyst, although one imagines that in Vienna there is a glut on the market. But it was his father’s career path that he followed. Sort of. “His ‘modern’ music was totally normal to me,” the younger Ligeti says. “I’m probably less fascinated with contemporary [classical] music because I talked with my father a lot when I started out.” Lukas took a musical path that diverged sharply from his father’s, exploring African music and avant-garde jazz as much as Western art music. And, in a roundabout way, that trajectory brought him into new contact with his Jewish identity. “When I moved to New York [in 1998] I started running into many more Jews than in Vienna,” he says. He gradually came to see “that there is something intangible in the attitude, the humor, that is Jewish in me.” Perhaps more surprising, it was his longtime interest in African music that brought him into a Jewish community for the first time. “Beginning in 1994 Africa started playing a strong role in my life,” he recalls. “I spent some time in South Africa, in Johannesburg where there’s a big Jewish community. And my initial contacts there were Jewish, I developed closer links to that Jewish community. I went to a chasidic wedding, things like that, which I couldn’t imagine doing in Vienna.” As he became involved in the downtown music scene in New York, Ligeti inevitably crossed paths with John Zorn. The most recent product of the budding mutual admiration between the two musicians will be Ligeti’s month as curator at Zorn’s music venue, The Stone, this March. Ligeti has also recorded for Zorn’s Tzadik label as part of its “Composers” series. And Zorn has raised the possibility of Ligeti contributing the “Radical Jewish Culture” recordings, too. Ligeti is intrigued by the idea. “I’ve never done any music that could be called specifically Jewish,” he admits. “It could be interesting, because I’ve gotten in touch with my Jewish identity through South Africa. Maybe I could do something involving African Jewish communities.” That would be just one more three-corner carom shot for Ligeti’s career.   Lukas Ligeti will be giving a solo percussion performance at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker St.), opening for Juana Molina at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 27. He will be curating all the programs at The Stone (Avenue C and 2nd Street) during the month of March, performing in many of them. (For information, go to www.thestonenyc.com.) On May 1 he will join the American Composers Orchestra for the premiere of his new concerto for electric percussion and orchestra at Carnegie Hall (Seventh Avenue and 57th Street) at 8 p.m.   And don’t forget these outstanding musical events: Ongoing: City Winery (155 Varick St.) revives the Sunday Klezmer Brunch, 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Among the bands already on board are Alex Kontorovich’s Deep Minor (Feb. 15), Michael Winograd (Feb. 22), Alicia Svigals and Marilyn Lerner: Klezmer Unfettered (March 1), Klez Dispensers & Deep Minor (March 8) and Isle of Klezbos (March 15). Ongoing: As part of the massive Mendelssohn bicentennial celebrations, Gail Archer will be performing programs of organ music by the composer, his sister and friends throughout the spring. Program schedule: Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m., St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University (117th Street and Amsterdam Avenue); March 11, 7:30 p.m., Central Synagogue (123 E. 55th St.); April 1, 7:30 p.m., Temple Emanu-El (Fifth Avenue between 65th and 66th  streets); May 20, 7:30 p.m., Central Synagogue. Feb. 18: The Yuval Ron Ensemble presents “The Lost Soul of Spain: Music and Dance of the Sephardic Jews,” Hebrew and Ladino songs from around the Mediterranean, in a preview of a concert that will be performed for the king of Morocco at the International Festival of Sacred Music of Fez; Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place), 7 p.m. Feb. 19 and April 23: At Tantzhoyz (Dance House) at JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue), party like it’s 1925 with dance leaders Deborah Strauss (Feb. 19) and Walter Zev Feldman (April 23) and a collection of top NYC klezmorim. Learn Yiddish dance and knock yourself out, 7-10 p.m, both nights. Feb. 25 and March 5: “Celebrating Mendelssohn…and Discovering Eduard Franck,” another Mendelssohn tribute, but also a rare opportunity to hear the music of one of his foremost students, Franck who, like his teacher, struggled with Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in the 19th century European music world. Merkin Concert Hall (129 West 67th St.), both nights at 7:30 p.m. March 4 and 5: Israeli rock god Berry Sakharof makes a very rare New York appearance, playing consecutive nights, first in an unplugged set with percussionist Zohar Fresio at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) at 8 p.m., and the following night at 7:30 p.m. in evening of wilder abandon at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker St.) March 6: Craig Taubman will almost be a fixture in New York this spring, playing this gig and subsequent ones on May 15 and 17 at Temple Israel (112 E. 75th St.). April 2: Balkan Beat Box celebrates its remix album “Nu-Made”, when the band returns to NYC for a gig at Webster Hall (125 E. 11 St.), 8 p.m. April 18: Rob Tannenbaum and Good for the Jews will undoubtedly have something tasty prepared for Passover; it will definitely be funnier than your seder! 92Y Tribeca (200 Hudson St.)