Concert review

Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival creates musical memories

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The collective memory of the Holocaust is being inherited by people who did not experience it themselves. Enter the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, which was produced Monday night at Rodef Shalom: It suggested we can commemorate the past by creating anew.

The program offered musical settings of journal entries by Anne Frank, the war’s most famous diarist, and poetry by Hannah Szenes, who was killed in Hungary after refusing to disclose information about her rescue mission with Hungarian Jews. Their texts were about 70 years old -- most of it was projected on the screen, and all of it should have been -- but the music was written in the past 20 years by living American composers.

The production wasn’t exactly a festival, as Monday’s concert was the sole event. Still, the name implies celebration. The promotional poster indicated the music would be “uplifting” -- a tall task for anyone presenting Holocaust-related art. That was perhaps a bit optimistic, but the performance was moving, striking. And it celebrated life as much as it honored the dead.

The first half was presented with no applause between pieces. Throughout the concert, documentary imagery of the journal and of the people mentioned in the text was projected on a screen; colorful lighting set the mood. The stage in darkness, it opened with Jonathan Berger’s stirring string quartet “Eli Eli,” which is based on David Zehavi’s setting of Szenes’ poem. The piece was brief but powerful, with jarring dissonance and weeping melodies. Cantorial call-and-response figures grew in depth with an urgent performance by violinists Louis Lev and Rachel White, violist Marylene Gingras-Roy and cellist Aron Zelkowicz -- the festival’s founder and director.

Joan Szymko’s own setting of “Eli, Eli” for voice and cello followed. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash’s powerful, commanding vocals threaded into Mr. Zelkowicz’s thoughtful cello. Matt Van Brink’s “Take the Burden Upon You,” for voice, flute (Alberto Almarza), cello and harp (Gretchen Van Hoesen), rounded out the group of Szenes-influenced works.

With that same instrumentation, Michael Cohen’s “I Remember” concluded the first half. The piece’s text is adapted from the diary of Anne Frank. Here, Ms. Shammash took on Anne’s persona: childhood innocence meeting mature insight via impossible circumstance. The instrumental writing follows the speech-like cadences sung by Ms. Shammash. The motif “I Remember” signaled Anne’s attempts to recall better days as much as it implored us to remember her worst ones.

The second half continued in a similar vein with Linda Tutas Haugen’s “Anne Frank: A Living Voice,” which also used diary selections as its libretto. The seven-movement piece for treble choir and string quartet featured the talented members of the Concentio Chamber Choir of the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts, conducted by Kathryn Barnard. It was moving that the 16 girls, all between 12 and 18, were singing words written by someone so close to their age. Here, the singers showed off a mature, pure tone and impressive uniformity, particularly in performing the long work from memory.

The piece takes a chronological look at Anne’s feelings across the time she spent in the Secret Annex over two-plus years; “My Nerves,” the creepy second movement, included whispers that captured the diarist’s anxiety and the hushed life she experienced while in hiding. In the fifth movement, “My Work,” Anne Frank’s hopeful and eerily predictive language (“I want to go on living even after death”) was juxtaposed by the looming reality foreshadowed by cello.

The concert concluded with Nancy Grundhal’s a cappella “Hebrew Rounds for Piece,” based on traditional texts familiar to audience members who joined in. The choir sang an encore, “Am’cha Jissrael,” by Viktor Ullmann, who was killed in Auschwitz.

“It is the silence that frightens me so,” wrote Anne Frank, a phrase intoned by the singers at the beginning of “A Living Voice.” Those of us tasked with remembering should fear it, too.


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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