October 21, 2015

Richardson Chamber Players Bring a Dark Period of History to Life

Music RevA great deal of music came out of World War II, including patriotic songs and battle-inspired orchestral works from leading composers of the time, but none was more poignant than the music composed in Theresienstadt, the ghetto established in the city of Terezin, outside of Prague, in which 140,000 individuals were imprisoned by the Nazis between June 1940 and the end of the war. This European wartime center of music-making was one of its most productive but also one of its most horrific locales — a walled “Main Fortress” used both as a transport center and artistic “model settlement” for German propaganda.

Theresienstadt was a city unto itself, with a cultural life rivaling any European major city. The collective art and music of Terezin has been the subject of books and films, and pieces by imprisoned composers are heard on concert programs, sandwiched among secure and comforting war horses. It is a brave ensemble that presents an entire program on the works originating from such a devastating creative environment. The Richardson Chamber Players became one such ensemble this past Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, with “Voices out of the Storm,” a program of five rarely-heard chamber pieces composed by composers of Theresienstadt. More poignant than the music itself was the fact that four of the composers died in 1944, with the fifth in early 1945, characterizing the program as a concert of talent unrealized.

The core musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players for Sunday afternoon’s concert were violinist Anna Lim, violist Junah Chung, and cellist Alberto Parrini, joined later in the program by a number of students for a larger orchestral work. Martha Elliott and pianist Margaret Kampmeier presented an unusual dramatic work for piano and narrator, leaving the audience to further imagine the circumstances under which these pieces were written. In his introductory remarks, conductor Michael Pratt explained his programming of this concert both as a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the European camps and as a performance testament to the monumental importance of music in extreme conditions.

Gideon Klein was just getting his university musical studies underway when he was sent to Theresienstadt. Klein gave numerous piano recitals to great acclaim while imprisoned, and his compositions from this time period reflect the influence of other Czech composers and folk idioms. String Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello centered on a pensive and melancholy middle movement bracketed by two chipper shorter sections. Violist Mr. Chung played a key role in the presentation of this work, providing an effective core of a musical dialogue among all three instruments. With both sparkling and lyrical violin playing from Ms. Lim and exact pizzicato from cellist Mr. Parrini in the outer movements, the somberness of the middle movement no doubt reminded the original players and audience of where they were and why they were there.

Viktor Ullmann was the oldest of these five composers, and well established as a composer before being deported to Theresienstadt. As a prisoner, Ullmann organized concerts and a Studio for New Music, and his list of works composed during this time is extensive. The Lay of the Life and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke was a melodrama in the style of an “aubade” — a song or poem about lovers separating at dawn. In Sunday’s performance, the story was conveyed by both pianist (Ms. Kampmeier) and narrator (Ms. Elliott), and the narrative easily flowed between spoken text and keyboard artistry. Narrating in German, Ms. Elliott found numerous characters and a range between sensitive poignancy and elaborate drama as the lovers realize what they have gotten themselves into. Ms. Kampmeier was kept busy nonstop, playing accompaniments that could easily stand on their own as piano pieces, and pianist and narrator easily wove the musical fabric together.

Hans Krása was also an organizer of cultural activities at Theresienstadt, and made his mark as a nationalistic composer with his children’s opera Brundibár, presented at Theresienstadt to the International Red Cross. His Tanec for Violin, Viola and Cello was played by Ms. Lim, Mr. Chung, and Mr. Parrini with all the spirit and gypsy feel suggested by the work’s title (translated as “dance”), with Mr. Chung providing an especially rich viola melody toward the end of the piece. Mr. Chung and Mr. Parrini effectively returned to a gypsy style in Zikmund Schul’s Two Chassidic Dances for Viola and Cello, musical gems exemplifying Schul’s interest in Judaic religion and mysticism. The closing work on the program brought an ensemble of students to join the soloists in Pavel Haas’s Study for String Orchestra, which showed the pedagogical influence of Janácek on Haas. Beginning with a strong beginning from the lower strings, conductor Mr. Pratt maintained a smooth flow to the music, with transitions well-handled and decisive determination from the players when necessary.

All of these composers deserved to be heard in a Princeton concert hall, as well as likely many more composers from Theresienstadt. Mr. Pratt accurately pointed out that the music heard on Sunday afternoon was exuberant and life-affirming; Viktor Ullmann wrote at the time, “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”