Battenkill Chorale to sing music of concentration camp

Janet McGhee, the artistic director of the Battenkill Chorale, first heard about the unusual circums

Janet McGhee, the artistic director of the Battenkill Chorale, first heard about the unusual circumstances of the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp about six years ago when she led a women’s chorus during a Holocaust program at Skidmore College.

“I met a Terezin survivor and his story stayed with me,” McGhee said.

On Saturday and Sunday, she will lead the chorale in a special concert, “Voices of Hope and Remembrance: Honoring the Legacy of Terezin,” that features music written not only by composers imprisoned at the camp but Jewish music by other composers, which include Leonard Bernstein, Franz Schubert, Ernest Bloch and a world premiere by Alfred Fedak.

First awareness

Terezin, which is about an hour outside of Prague, became known to the world in 1944 when, prior to a visit from the Red Cross, the Nazis remodeled the camp into what seemed like a small village that was congenial to its inmates. A propaganda film was made and performances were given that included children singing in Hans Krasa’s opera “Brundibar” and Pavel Haas’ “Study for String Orchestra.”

Battenkill Chorale

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs


MORE INFO: 692-7458. 692-7458. Pre-concert talk at 3 p.m. Sunday with Joshua Jacobson, an authority on Jewish choral music and composer Thomas Oboe Lee. There will be a 12-minute film interview between Janet McGhee, artistic director of the Battenkill Chorale, and Edgar Krasa.

Once the Red Cross had visited and the charade was over, up to 18,000 prisoners, including the children, the orchestra, and the composers were shipped to Auschwitz, where most perished in the gas chambers.

One of the famous stories that came out of the war was how Karel Ancerl, who had conducted Haas’ “Study” at that performance, was saved. As Dr. Josef Mengele examined the new arrivals and was ready to send Ancerl to his death, Haas, who was standing next to him and had been ailing, coughed. This sealed Haas’ fate but Ancerl would go on to a tremendously successful conducting career after the war.

McGhee’s inspiration came from hearing the story of Terezin survivor Edgar Krasa. Edgar is not related to Hans Krasa, who was killed at Auschwitz.

“[Edgar Krasa] was living in an attic space with Rafael Schecter, who had taught the kids ‘Brundibar’ and was the soul of music at the camp,” McGhee said. “Krasa also sang Verdi’s Requiem at Terezin.”

Intrigued by Krasa’s story, McGhee spent the next several years doing research on the camp.

“I became completely consumed with the people of Terezin and the images,” she said.

Among the composers she discovered who had written vocal music were Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann. Haas’ “Al s’fod” (“Do Not Lament,” 1942) for two tenors and two basses (originally for male chorus) and Ullmann’s “Herbst” (1943) for baritone and piano (originally for baritone and string trio) will be performed. Charles Davidson put some of the poetry, which children imprisoned at Terezin wrote, to music for “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” (1968) that the 20-voice Bennington Children’s Chorus will perform.

Women to sing

The women of the chorale will sing Thomas Oboe Lee’s work “The Flowers of Terezin” (2004), which the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation had commissioned. There are four sections, each of which has its own inspiration that includes a universalist theme based on Walt Whitman’s poetry, Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” a kind of children’s march from “Brundibar” and a Japanese haiku. Jazz and South American rhythms infuse the work.

“Each is a miniature that can stand by itself,” McGhee said. “The piece is very moving.”

Last year, the chorale commissioned Fedak to write a work. When Fedak heard of this concert’s theme, he told McGhee he wasn’t sure his “Musica, Dei Donum Optimi” would fit because it was more of an upbeat madrigal. But McGhee disagreed.

“It’s lovely and well crafted,” she said. “It shows the power of music to soothe the wounded soul.”

A few choral works were performed at Terezin from which the chorale will do excerpts. These include Mendelssohn’s “He Watching Over Israel” from his oratorio “Elijah”; and instead of singing something from Verdi’s Requiem, which was sung, it will sing the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from his opera “Nabucco.”

Other works on the program include Schubert’s “Tov Lehodos”; Kurt Weill’s “Kiddush”; “Silent Devotion” from Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service”; “Five Hebrew Love Songs” by Eric Whitacre for piano (Eric Borden) and violin (Harriet Weither); Max Janowski’s “Avinu Malkeynu”; part three from Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”; Louis Lewandowski’s “Halalujoh”; and “Bashana Haba’ah” arranged by John Leavitt.

There will also be a pre-concert talk at 3 p.m. Sunday with Joshua Jacobson, an authority on Jewish choral music; Lee will talk about his piece and there will be a 12-minute film interview between McGhee and Krasa, who is now 90.

McGhee didn’t stop there, however.

“I wanted to bring this all alive. I wanted to see where the people at Terezin had rehearsed and sing there. These were real people . . . people who had fought for Germany in World War I. These are real stories,” she said.

Tour of sites

Remembering the chorale’s “fabulous success” when it toured Russia in 2008, McGhee decided she wanted to visit the actual locations. Connections were made for an eight-day tour this summer of Vienna and Prague.

Initially, the rabbi at Prague’s Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish quarter wanted a program of 100 percent Jewish music but ultimately he approved the program as it is.

The 55 singers also got permission to give a memorial recital at Terezin, sing at a cathedral in Vienna and at Cesky Krumlov, a medieval village that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Making musical connections on site is powerful,” McGhee said.

“This concert promises to be one of our most moving, ever to get the story out. [It] is an uplifting concert to honor the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable horror.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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