Honoring Works Created in the Darkest of Places

Saturday, May 2, 2009

An occasional masterpiece was produced by a composer held prisoner during World War II: Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" premiered at Stalag VIII-A in 1941. But how many works disappeared forever, their creators' lives snuffed out? The number is unknowable, but violinist Daniel Hope is rescuing as many as he can. The Vocal Arts Society brought Hope, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg to the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night for works of some lesser musical lights: eight Jewish composers, only one of whom survived the war, and most of whom were at some time in the prison camp called Terezín or Theresienstadt.

Their names are now little known: Ilse Weber, Karel Svenk, Robert Dauber, Viktor Ullmann, Erwin Schulhoff, Pavel Haas, Carlo Sigmund Taube and Karel Berman (the sole survivor). Their music is mostly undistinguished: folklike, salon and cabaret-style songs; well-made but scarcely compelling chamber works. But the performers plumbed what depths there were. Standouts included an anonymous set of Terezín-focused words set to a famous song from Imre Kálmán's operetta "Countess Maritza"; Weber's tender and deeply moving lullaby "Wiegala"; and Schulhoff's Sonata for Violin and Piano.

Complementing the concert was a fascinating display at Strathmore Mansion of fabric art by Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. Her charming folk-art technique, applied to scenes of escape and survival, has a chilling but uplifting effect.

There was less uplift at the concert itself. The sparse attendance likely reflected an expectation that all the music would be dark and dismal. Much was -- but thanks to the performers' sensitivity, the overall impression was strongly life-affirming.

-- Mark J. Estren

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company