A stellar cast of talented classical musicians performed one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed events in the Savannah Music Festival's history at Temple Mickve Israel this past Thursday night.
The backstory is compelling enough: A selection of pieces written by Eastern European Jewish composers from the 1920s-1940s, the compositions themselves smuggled out of Nazi concentration camps and kept alive while the men who wrote them all died in the camps -- some only in their twenties, none having any idea whether their music would survive them.
The setting: North America's oldest Reform synagogue (and technically the oldest remaining in the world, since the Holocaust destroyed all Reform temples in Europe).
But what really made this evening so unique, so deeply felt, was that these pieces -- not always as haunting or depressing as you might think -- all stood alone on their own as inspired works of the composer's art. (The fortune-teller's art as well: In most cases the works were written well before the Holocaust but seemed to foretell its horrors with chilling precision.)
The evening opened with Daniel Hope and Jeffrey Kahane's performance of a 1927 violin and piano sonata by Erwin Schulhoff, who was arrested by the Nazis in 1942 and died of tuberculosis a year later in a concentration camp. Hope, as impassioned as I've ever seen him play, was immersed in the kinetic pathos of the piece, itself an incredible blend of compelling modernism and classical virtuosity. Hope's usual specialties of fearless double-stopping and liquid bow work were very much on display the entire 18 minutes of the sonata, and the fine acoustics of the Temple were an excellent complement.
The remainder of the program's first half comprised an intricate but powerful string trio by Gideon Klein -- who died in a concentration camp just a few weeks before it was liberated -- and two delightful and all-too-short Chassidic Dance interpretations by Siegmund Schul, who died in the infamous Theresienstadt death camp in 1944.
The second half of the evening opened with the controlled mania of Jeffrey Kahane's performance of Pavel Haas' Suite for Piano. Haas was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1944, and while this suite was written ten years prior, you clearly hear a foreshadowing of the horrors to come in this aural portrait of a nightmare.
But the highlight of the evening by far, fittingly, was the final work, the 1924 String Sextet by the aforementioned Schulhoff, whose sonata opened the evening. This is a piece so intense and hypnotic that it almost defies description, a darkly beautiful composition in which the players -- doubled violins, violas, and cellos -- not only worked together as a unit, but occasionally dropped off to allow for evocative, tortured minor-key solos.
Again, while written a decade before Hitler's rise to power, one can hear Schulhoff's prophecy of impending apocalypse screaming from every note. The piece finishes in the way our world is likely to end: Not with a bang, but with a slow, heartbreaking fade to silence. -- Jim Morekis