Parallel to the immense human tragedy of the Holocaust are the artistic tragedies. Not only were composers' lives severed by the Nazis, but an important way of making music--directly, unself-consciously, harmonically--was pushed to the margins as well. The Jewish composers killed or displaced, especially those who perished at Terezin, were some of the world's most talented and interesting voices. A concert at the Holocaust Museum's Meyerhoff Theater on Sunday afternoon presented music of two composers deeply touched by this grim chapter of history.
Herman Berlinski, a composer now into his nineties, is a familiar presence on the Washington musical scene, a longtime organist, composer and music director. He has composed volumes of music that, if it all lives up to the quality of the violin sonata heard Sunday, could be an immense trove of musical ingenuity and invention.
Yet for a critic still new to the Washington scene, Berlinski is a discovery. A very happy discovery, but one that makes one wonder how much the circumstances of history that interrupted his career have prevented his wider renown.
Berlinski, who was present to take bows with violinist Elizabeth Adkins and pianist Edward Newman after their performance of his three-movement "Le Violon de Chagall" ("Chagall's Violin"), fled Nazi Germany for France, and in 1939 enlisted in the French army. After the fall of France, he again escaped, this time to the United States. His music, according to those who know it more extensively, has been colored by the experience through his long career.
That kind of influence is hard to detect, except when the composer makes it explicit. The title of the work refers to an image of a rooftop violinist in the painter's 1913 "The Fiddler." It's a dark and lonely image, one that could stand for the larger, pre-Holocaust Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. It's up to each individual listener to decide how much the title, and Berlinski's personal history, will affect the musical experience.
I found the piece worked extraordinarily well on a purely musical level. The writing is bold and passionate, worked out on a very large scale and bristling with ideas. It almost begs not to be played: It is virtuosic, long and complex. The performers were undaunted, however, and produced exactly the sort of sensuous and furious sounds that one would expect from an Eastern European composer who studied in Paris.
The second movement, a set of theme and variations that fly as far from their thematic tether as possible (without losing the sense of the original), was particularly moving. And the flirtation with folk idioms and bright, upward-leaping melodic ideas in the third movement tied the sonata to its classical forebears without seeming anachronistic.
Lucas Foss, whose compositions filled the first half of the program, has had greater public success than Berlinski. He, too, escaped the Nazis, and one of the works heard Sunday was the world premiere of a Holocaust Museum commission. "Anne Frank," for piano and cello, reflects its inspiration by keeping its sentiments intimate and personal.
It is an episodic work with some very successful passages, including an interrupted march for both instruments (with the pianist's foot loudly tapping); the opening passage is touching as well, spare in the piano and intensely vocal in the cello. Other passages work less well, and the piece seems intended as a lighter, more occasional work than its title might imply.
Paired with Foss's earlier "Time Cycle for Soprano, Clarinet, Cello, Piano and Percussion" (from 1960), "Anne Frank" seems almost underwhelming. Foss's "Time Cycle" is a continual exploration, filled with discoveries and a few dead ends. Foss works against the texts he sets for singing and speaking soprano, fracturing the singsong rhythms of W.H. Auden, piercing the silence of a short stanza by A.E. Housman and deflating the rhetoric of Nietzsche's "O mensch, gibt Acht," from "Zarathustra."
The theme of time is reflected in dislocated and shifting rhythms, in the necessity of close coordination between the players and in the texts' different descriptions of how time and mortality are felt rather than measured. It is a major work that suffers only from the datedness of the vocal style. But the piece worked well on the program, and it is always welcome to hear documents from America's most suppressed musical era.