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Lest We Forget

Artist and Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka

On May 8 , 1917, the United States entred WWI. One hundred years later, as our world is again awash in warfare, destruction, disruption, death and dislocation, Music of Remembrance and Seattle Pro Musica bring us reminders not only of war’s bloody results, but of resistance, of the hope and resilience of ordinary people in the face of war. Both performances, taking place this weekend, bear the message “Lest We Forget,” because if we forget what war is like we are doomed to repeat it, as we have done over and over throughout recorded history.

Mina Miller, founder of MoR, digs diligently to bring audiences material that highlights wide aspects of WWII. For this program, performed at Nordstrom Recital Hall onMay 21, MoR focuses on the experiences of Europe’s Gypsies, the Roma, during the Holocaust. MoR has commissioned a multi-media work on the life of an Austrian-Romani woman, Ceija Stojka, a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Birkenau concentration camps, and an artist, writer, and speaker on the Roma situation in Europe (she died in 2013, at 79). The commissioned music of ”to open myself, to scream”  is composed by Maya Kouyoumdjian, with design by Silk Road ensemble member and visual artist Kevork Mourad, based on paintings by Stojka. Both of those artists come from families that survived the Armenian genocide.

“It’s one of the wilder things we’ve done,” says Miller, who has also included on the program other works by Austrian/Jewish composers, including Shakespeare songs set by Erich Korngold and Eastern European Jewish/Argentinian Oswaldo Golijov’s “Lullaby and Doina” from his music for the film The Man Who Cried. The film explores the fate of Jews and Gypsies in the mid-20th century through an ultimately tragic love affair between a young Jewish woman and a Gypsy man. As visual complement, Miller has commissioned choreography from Olivier Wevers of Whim W’Him.

Seattle Pro Musica’s program, with a plea for peace that covers wars, battles and assassinations from the Civil War to the present, has as its centerpiece Ralph Vaughan Williams’ masterly 1930s cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem,” considered one of the most powerful anti-war works of the last century.

“It’s from an uneasy time period, fearing the approach of another war,” says Pro Musica artistic director and conductor Karen P. Thomas. “It warns countries against taking that path again. Historically, it’s a bridge.” The words are largely from Walt Whitman’s poetry, including his searing indictment of the Civil War “Beat! Beat! Drums!” as well as biblical excerpts.

Thomas has included Eleanor Daley’s setting of Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the fallen,” the memorable quotes of which are also graven on the wall of the Memorial Garden at Benaroya Hall: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old, Age shall not weary them…..We shall remember them.”  

The program is filled with works of hope, prayers for peace and prayers for the souls of the dead, from the fourth century to today. The late Bern Herbolsheimer’s “for they shall” highlights the dichotomy of war—the instruments sound warlike, the voices are peaceful, gentle, singing a prayer from the Beatitudes.

Overall, the music is largely British, plus some Canadian, and they share a similar color palette, Thomas says, complementing each other but not interchangeable. While this is an anti-violence program, Thomas wanted to balance the program with choral music less intense, more hopeful, including a 1916 work by the Russian Nikolai Golovanov, a joyful prayer of praise.

“Unfortunately, the music and the words are still so pertinent,” says Thomas, “with so many horrific things going on in different parts of the world. This feels even more timely as a warning, a plea to be international about working for peace. It’s historical, but contemporary at the same time.” The two performances take place at St. James Cathedral Friday and Saturday, May 19 and 20. 

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