The Story of the Holocaust Through Music

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, May 5, 2005

Several organizations and individuals have helped to make this weekend program a reality.  But it all started with one man, and Michael Neumann’s motivation was very personal.

“Laying dormant in me for a long, long time, ever since I was a teenager, was this whole thing about the Holocaust. Because it affected my family very directly.  And then somebody about 3 years ago sent me a book called the Inextinguishable Symphony.”

That book’s author, the former host of NPR’s Performance Today Martin Goldsmith, tells the compelling story of his parents, musicians who survived Nazi Germany. But it wasn’t the story that most affected Neumann.  It was seeing a picture in the book of his violin teacher Henry Meyer, also a concentration camp survivor.

“And that was sort of the final spark to prompt me to actually do something.”

What Neumann did was to create a wide-ranging  production called “Music of the Holocaust Era: Survival & Triumph.”  It includes archival film footage, sophisticated stage lighting, and narration by Peggy Shannon of the Sacramento Theatre Company.  At first, Neuman considered a more tradition thematic concert, possibly featuring Jewish composers and soloists.

“It grew into something much larger.  And when I say larger what I mean is that instead of just playing a few pieces like an overture and a concierto and then intermission and then a symphony, it now has transformed into telling the story of the Holocaust through music.”

That includes music not associated with the Era by composers like Beethoven, Bach, and… Mozart.  That’s who the Premiere Orchestra is working on during this rehearsal. In choosing the material for Sunday’s concert, Neumann immersed himself in months of research.   His goal was to illuminate the very personal stories of some of those who lived through and died during the Holocaust.

“One person interned in the camps vowed that if he ever got out he would go to the Phillipines and he would conduct Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.  And sure enough he kept his promise, he made it out and played for a standing room crowd in a bombed out church with no roof and he did the Eroica Symphony.”

Sunday’s concert will feature several selections directly tied to the times.  For instance, the Klezmer Sting Band Freilachmakers will perform two Yiddish resistance pieces, and the program will include this vocal duet of a poem called “Butterfly,” written in the camps and later set to music.

“There will also be a string quartet by Victor Ullman played by a quartet of kids from the Youth Symphony that was written in Theresiedstadt.  This fellow lived there and he was interned then died in Auschwitz and he had written 16 major works while he was in Theresiedstadt.”

Concert master of the Premiere Orchestra, George Hayes is playing violin during this rehearsal of the Ullman quartet.

“Performing that quartet, knowing what he was going through when he wrote it, knowing the terror, everybody…. The piece has sort of a haunting beginning. And then it goes into this wild, kind of terror that’s sweeping across everything and you can’t stop it.”

“I’m trying to understand what the composer might have been feeling when he wrote the piece.”

And that, says Michael Neumann, is precisely what he hopes for from members of the Youth Symphony.

“This concert is not about playing with perfect intonation or perfect this or that.  This is to tell a story and to be totally involved in the story and bring the audience into it as part of what we’re doing.  And when that energy is transferred back and forth I think the power will be really great that day.”

Michael Neumann is in his 26th year as artistic director of the Sacramento Youth Symphony.  Tickets for Sundays concert were nearly sold out as of Wednesday night.  There’s a link to more information at capradio dot org.