Author: Berg, Gregory
Date published: March 1, 2012
Lori Laitman: Vedem. Angela Niederloh, mezzo soprano; Ross Hauck, tenor; The Northwest Boychoir; Music of Remembrance; Mina Miller, piano. (Naxos 8.559685; 61:18)
I. The Transports: "Hear my story now," "Memories of Prague." II. Home Number One: "Home Number One," "Five." III. Vedem: "Vedem," "Just a Little Warmth," "In Terezin the Mind was Free," "Thoughts," "Like Leaves About To Fall," "Love in the Floodgates," "We Were Alive, Approximately." IV. A Model Ghetto. V. They Are Gone: "They Are Gone," "Farewell To Summer," "We Were No Different Than You." Fathers: "Don't Cry, Fragment 1," "You, Father," "Don't Cry, Fragment 2," "Last Night I Dreamt," "Don't Cry, Fragment 3," "I Saw My Father Drowning," "Don't Cry."
When we reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust, we must not fail to remember that millions of children were victims of this unspeakable nightmare. We sometimes forget that some of the most stirring stories of courage in the face of this horror involve children. One of the most inspiring occurred in the Terezin concentration camp. In an gesture of laudable selflessness, the camp's Jewish council of elders arranged for the children of the camp to be housed in their own facilities, in hopes that they would be spared at least some of the relentless horror experienced by the adults. The fourteen year old boys who lived in a room known as Home One were fortunate (or at least as fortunate as one could possibly be in such a place) to be led by a gifted and creative educator named Valtr Eisinger, who helped foster a strong sense of brotherhood there.
If anything made life bearable for those young men in Home One, it was a secret magazine they created together called Vedem [In the lead], a vehicle for their original prose, poetry, and artwork. Every Friday night, the boys would gather together to read aloud whatever they had created for the latest edition of their magazine. "Their writings," says Mina Miller, in her beautifully written liner notes, "reveal inspirational courage, passionate idealism, and wisdom far beyond the years of their young authors." One of the boys, Sidney Taussig, had the astonishing foresight to bury almost eight hundred pages from the magazine, so they wouldn't fall into the hands of their Nazi captors and be lost forever. The boy and his father survived to be liberated, and were able to recover the precious manuscripts and bring them back to their home in Prague. Excerpts from Vedem in English translation were eventually published in 1995 in the book We Are Children Just The Same, which shared this inspiring story with the wider world.
Mina Miller knew that Music for Remembrance, her Seattle-based ensemble, could play a role in sharing the legacy of Vedem through music. Eventually, the group commissioned Lori Laitman, one of the most gifted vocal music composers before the public today, to compose an oratorio that would memorialize the magazine and the boys who created it. David Mason, a past collaborator with Laitman, constructed a libretto combining the story of the boys with six of the poems written for their magazine. The result is profoundly moving masterpiece of heartbreak and hope, and, in my view, the finest work yet to emerge from Laitman's prolific pen.
One of the most important things that must be said about this work is that it is by no means relentlessly bleak and sorrowful. Laitman's score is a skillful mixture of darkness and light, death and life, as is Mason's beautifully crafted libretto. The work is scored for piano, clarinet, violin, cello, children's choir, mezzo soprano, and baritone. Such relatively light texture lends both poignancy and vibrancy to the work, as well as a sense of youthfulness even in the most sorrowful passages. Tying the work together are musical themes that Laitman herself refers to as leitmotives which tie the work together. There is also a memorable moment when a light-hearted, flirtatious song quotes Antonin Dvorak's famous Humoresque, which grants the music a specific sense of place as well as a momentary playfulness that feels almost grotesque in this context and yet truly belongs.
The work opens with the tenor soloist singing, "Oh hear my story now as it comes to me, for I am vanished from the world you love, and I am nothing without memory." This is one of the dominant themes of the work: that it is our sacred duty to remember these boys, along with all of the other victims of the Holocaust, lest they be lost to the mists of time. Intertwined through the work are six original poems from the Vedem magazine in the English translations of Paul Wilson done for the aforementioned 1995 book. These songs can be performed on their own as a song cycle, apart from the rest of the oratorio, and they are especially touching when one remembers who wrote these lyrics and under what circumstances. "Memories of Prague" was written by Peter Ginz, who was the primary editor of Vedem before being sent to die at Auschwitz at the age of sixteen. His text speaks longingly of Prague, "you fairy tale in stone," and Laitman captures its mood perfectly. In "Just a Little Warmth," the starkness of the text is aptly reflected by the singer being accompanied most of the way by only clarinet; the effect leaves us shivering. Another poem, "Thoughts," recounts young Hanus Hachenburg's experience of witnessing a grown man going mad, crying out "Mummy, hold me; I'm a leaf about to fall." Through dramatic use of tessitura and slashing melodic intervals, Laitman conveys unbridled anguish and the effect is chilling. Perhaps the most beautiful and heartbreaking of all the Vedem texts is the last of the six, "Farewell to Summer," by Zdenek Ornest, which also inspires some of the most exquisitely lyric music of the entire work.
I should like to write as you do, poets,
of spring's end, of love and sunny days,
of tender evenings spent in the
of birds and flowers, of trees in bud.
I should like to say farewell, as you who
with a walk in the woods, with a river,
as in times of old when we were like
when I was not, as today, broken and
I would like to take leave of the summer
as you do,
in the sun, stopped short by my prison
to fondle a fading bed for a while
I cannot, I cannot-for I live behind bars.
As for the narrative passages of the oratorio, one of the most striking is titled "A Model Ghetto," describing how strangers would be brought to Terezin for carefully orchestrated visits to be shown how humanely those being held there were treated. In this movement, the two adult soloists revert from teachers or parents to clueless visitors who naively believe all they're told about Theresienstadt. What is truly disturbing are the cries of "Stop!" from the children who are desperate for the adults to see what is really going on, but to no avail. Also chilling and truly heartbreaking is the final movement, "We Were No Different Than You," which includes the recitation of names of some of the boys who lost their lives at Terezin. Twenty names are recited, but they of course are a tiny handful of the thousands of boys who passed through Terezin on their way to an early and unjust death. Among the most uplifting passages from the oratorio is the opening to the third section, bearing the title of the magazine, in which the children and two of their teachers share what it meant to them.
Vedem was the home for what we wrote
and read aloud on evening when we
Vedem was our poetry and prose
Vedem was how we weathered life
inside the walls.
Though we had football matches
though we had drills at school
we lived for what we wrote and painted
as if imagination were a jewel.
Who would have guessed that a group of imprisoned boys from more than sixty years ago would have something so compelling to say to us about the importance of the arts in our lives? The words themselves are powerful enough, but wed to Laitman's eloquent music they penetrate our being even more deeply and permanently.
This work is presented with great care, as is so often the case with Naxos releases. Mina Millers liner notes offer much more about the boys in Terezin and the magazine that they produced. The full libretto of the work is reproduced, along with several photos, including a picture of the hand-drawn cover of one issue of Vedem. The musicians of Music of Remembrance play with utmost sensitivity and skill, whether playing to convey joy, pain, or myriad other emotions and colors. Soloists Ross Hauck and Angela Niederloh sing powerfully and expressively, with careful enunciation of these beautiful texts. The Northwest Boychoir delivers a gorgeous, heartfelt performance, and is especially impressive in how they manage Laitman's delicately balanced and complex harmonies. Finally, mention must be made of the varied array of boy soloists whom we hear during the course of the work. Rather than a succession of boys sharing the same sort of pristine and ethereal sound, the boys we hear are distinct individuals, which actually deepens the ultimate impact of the oratorio. Those varied voices are a reminder that the massive loss of life of children during the Holocaust, which we tend to think of only in its collective sweep, occurred one boy and one girl at a time. This remarkable work reminds all who hear it that the children who lost their lives in this horror were no different than you and me when it came to their hopes and dreams. But the work is also a stirring testament to what the liner notes call "the young prisoners' unbending resistance to those who sought to rob them of their humanity."
Brief mention must be made of the other Laitman work on this disk, Fathers, which she composed in 2002 and revised in 2010. This song cycle is no afterthought; it is an exquisitely crafted masterwork in its own right. The texts, by Sri Lankan poet Anne Ranasinghe and Russian poet David Vogel, reflect on the pervasive and powerful ways in which parent-child bonds were affected by the Holocaust. (Ranasinghe lost her father in the Holocaust, and Vogel himself was murdered by the Nazis.) Three relatively lengthy poems are interspersed with a fragment from a fourth, "Don't Cry," which is finally heard in its entirety to conclude the cycle. There is a deeply touching wistfulness to "You, Father" in which Ranasinghe reflects upon what we presume is one of the last photographs ever taken of her father before his murder. As she pores over each detail of the precious photograph, she finds herself returning to the vexing question of why her father isn't smiling. Was the sun in his eyes, or did he somehow know what was ahead? Laitman knows exactly how to underscore the disconcertedness of this text without drawing attention away from it. One of the other long poems, "I Saw My Father Drowning," is David Vogel's recollection of watching his fathers death and of realizing that he faces a similar fate in some ways, although his is a different sort of drowning. Both voice and accompaniment bring this text to life down to its tiniest detail. After this, we finally hear the song from which we have only heard a tantalizing fragment or two, and the effect is both moving and calming. Fathers, a sequel of sorts to Laitman's earlier Daughters, is both a touching work in its own right and a worthy companion to her magnificent oratorio.