Ben Gambuzza | 27 OCT 2023
Wednesday evening, the audience in the synagogue of the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum in Manhattan sat rapt with reverence as they listened to Menachem Z. Rosensaft, the lawyer-poet and former president of the Labor Zionist Alliance. “Not all people are good at heart,” he said, explicitly disagreeing with the final sentiment of Anne Frank’s diary. His comment followed the world premiere of cantor and composer Gerald Cohen’s they burn, the fires of the night: lamentations from the ashes, a song cycle based on poems in Rosensaft’s 2021 collection, Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.
The concert, which played to a full house, was performed “in solidarity with the people and the State of Israel,” according to the program notes. It was intended to be a celebration of, in the words of Cantor Jill Abramson, “the sacred work of art as activism.” The current atrocities in the Gaza Strip were front and center as Rosensaft, who was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, condemned the “Hamas genocidaires,” comparing them to the SS.
In this charged atmosphere, which nonetheless had the feel of solidarity, the effect of the music was a mix of magic and tedium.
All the composers in the first half of the program had either, like Olivier Messiaen, been imprisoned in a concentration camp or, like the rest, been murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and Dachau. Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was a victim of the former camp, and Marika Bournaki kicked off the concert with the fifth movement of his seventh piano sonata. The piece incorporates four themes in counterpoint—a traditional Jewish hymn tune, a Lutheran hymn tune (“Now Thank We All Our God”), a Slavic warrior march, and Bach’s name (Bb, A, C, B). Ullmann achieves a full, cathedral-like texture, similar to Busoni’s Bach transcriptions. Bournaki was clumsy in some sixteenth-note passages and noticeably imprecise with her octaves but played with heart.
Next, cellist Julian Schwarz played a solo arioso by James Simon (1880-1944). A heartbreaking piece, it alternates between, on the one hand, the sincerity, melody, and passion of something like Elgar’s cello concerto and, on the other hand, the earthy drone of a musette, a sound common to many folk music traditions, though typically not Jewish ones. Schwarz played with a singing quality and an intensity that made the performance feel deeply personal.
Speaking from a podium, Murry Sidlin, Director of the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which presented the concert, described the next piece as “entertaining tearoom hotel music.” Robert Dauber’s (1922-1945) Serenade for Violin and Piano, played by Herbert Greenberg and Bournaki, combines a klezmer-like tune in the violin with a Schubertian march in the piano, and made for a charming palate cleanser to the preceding piece. Bournaki maintained the piece’s intensity but fudged some quickly descending chords, while Greenberg played with whimsy.
The first half ended with Carlo Taube’s (1897-1944) song, A Jewish Child, arranged for violin and piano. But the highlight of the first half was the penultimate work: two movements—the third and fifth—from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
Bournaki and Schwarz gave a tense rendition of the fifth movement. At the end, during the delicate decrescendo of the cello’s sustained note, Schwarz failed to achieve a smooth diminuendo, and instead his vibrato made the note hiccup. But it’s forgivable; it’s a hellishly difficult feat.
The third movement, for solo clarinet, was one of the most gratifying and mesmerizing clarinet performances I’d ever heard. Jon Manasse proceeded from soft to loud with perfectly paced crescendi, each so steady in its growth that I felt like I was listening to a giant pupil dilating. His humor in the playful passages was laugh-out-loud funny and his fortepianos sounded like bells ringing and fading away. It was truly like I was hearing a different instrument. He was astounding.
Cohen’s song cycle took up the entire second half of the program and was, unsurprisingly, very sad. Cohen’s sound is fairly traditional, heavily indebted to twentieth-century Europeans like Bartók and Messiaen. He does little to advance their techniques but mixes in Jewish folk music, which gave a vintage poignance to his settings of Rosensaft’s poems. For example, after baritone David Kravitz and mezzo-soprano Leah Wool alternated singing, “he is always hungry” and “she is always cold,” in the second song, the ensemble of violin, clarinet, cello, and piano made a carnivalesque fall down the staff, which sounded like a dozen deconstructed klezmer tunes. In the fourth song, “Knit Doll at Bergen-Belsen,” a mock-nursery rhyme is backed by a riff on the piano that sounds vaguely like the minimalist theme of The Social Network.
The seventh song, “blessed is the soul,” was special. A duet set to a poem commemorating a mother who “emerged / from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen / to create hope / not tears,” it foregrounded Wool and Kravitz against a glacial series of shapeshifting chords. The singers, an ace duo who both displayed a fantastic ability to belt out loud notes in other songs, were so delicate here that I was convinced they could, another night, nail West Side Story’s “Somewhere” as they intoned the final “blessed is her soul.”
For all the exciting rhythmic dislocations and aggressive Bartókian stabs, trills, and tremolos, the music was almost too beautiful, making me feel stuck in each song. Maybe it was because the text setting was often unimaginative—one or two bars for each line, as heard in the seventh song, for example.
But maybe this is how it should be. After all, Cohen conjured a plodding, gray mournfulness commensurate with the subjects that the poems portray. Is there any way to elicit a grieving emotional reaction from an audience when composing music about the Holocaust without resorting to sentimentality? Maybe not. And although I disagree with Greenberg, who said during the post-concert Q&A that Cohen is “like Beethoven,” I certainly think he succeeded in giving respectable music to poetry that the poet himself, when asked by Sidlin, didn’t think had music in it. ■
-  The Sound of Messianic Time | Jewish Currents, August 14, 2020
- Gerald Cohen: geraldcohenmusic.com
- The Defiant Requiem Foundation: defiantrequiem.org
- Hebrew Union College: huc.edu