Pro Musica Hebraica: Vivid delight and distress

By Joe Banno
Saturday, November 20, 2010; C02

Czech composer Karel Berman survived internments at Auschwitz, Dachau and Theresienstadt, as well as a bout of typhoid and a Nazi death march, before restarting his life and enjoying a half-century of composing and singing leading roles for the Prague National Theatre Opera. But to hear the richly sung and vividly characterized performance that bass Robert Pomakov and pianist Dianne Werner gave Berman's spiky, often playful, Czech-language song-cycle, "Poupata" ("Birds"), at a Pro Musica Hebraica-sponsored recital at the Terrace Theater on Thursday, it's hard to imagine such a life-affirming score was written during the darkest days of the composer's imprisonment.

Likewise, Paul Ben-Haim's confidently projected and faith-affirming Hebrew song-cycle, "Melodies from the East," (its melismatic writing nicely evoking cantorial singing in Pomakov's performance) didn't suggest a piece written at the height of the Holocaust, by a composer who fled the Nazis for a life in pre-Israeli Palestine. Ben-Haim's atmospheric mix of ancient melodies and harmonies with accessibly consonant Neo-Classicism proved attractive, too, in another of his wartime compositions, the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, played with earthy gusto by the Canadian-based ARC Ensemble.

The ARC players gave a reading of febrile intensity to Walter Braunfels's extraordinary F-sharp-minor String Quintet, written during the war while the part-Jewish composer braved Nazi censure to live in internal exile along the Swiss border. This work, unlike the others on the program, revealed the composer's anguish, with an enthralling mix of Straussian tumult, Shostakovich-like bleakness and extreme, Mahlerian mood swings that riveted the audience's attention.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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