By Peter Klein, Special to the Jewish Sound
Music of Remembrance’s spring concert has something for movie buffs, Klezmer fans, and classical audiences alike: The program includes a showing of the 1918 German silent film “The Yellow Ticket,” with a new score composed by Klezmer superstar violinist Alicia Svigals.
In addition, two contrasting compositions by Lori Laitman will receive their world premieres and a pre-WWII string trio by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů round out the May 12 program.
“The Yellow Ticket” was filmed partly in German-occupied Warsaw in the final year of the First World War. It has an interesting (and in hindsight, ironic) propaganda angle — it’s an early German film that portrays its Jewish characters sympathetically, and depicts the anti-Semitism of czarist Russia as cruel and backward.
The film stars Polish actress Pola Negri, who subsequently made her name in Hollywood portraying exotic vamps and femme fatales. In “The Yellow Ticket,” she plays a very different role as the sensitive, studious and determined Lea.
Lea is a Jewish girl who dreams of studying medicine in St. Petersburg. Most Jews were confined to an area known as the Pale of Settlement, and barred from major cities. One way around this was to possess a yellow passport — the “Yellow Ticket” of the title — that identified the holder as a prostitute (prostitution was legal in pre-revolutionary Russia). Lea manages to obtain such a document. She travels to St. Petersburg and falls into a double life — medical student by day, brothel resident by night, all the while hiding her Jewish identity.
The film’s unstaged exterior shots show ordinary life in Warsaw’s Jewish district of Nalewki.
“It’s like photos of my great-grandparents come to life,” says Svigals. She is a classically trained violinist who also studied with Klezmer violinist Leon Schwarz and was a founding member of “The Klezmatics.”
Svigals’ style is partly a recreation of old techniques, and partly her own invention, informed by folk styles of Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, even a bit of Bartok and Bloch. For over a year, Svigals and pianist Marilyn Lerner have toured North America with “The Yellow Ticket” under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Culture. While the tunes and harmonies are written out, there is also room for improvisation in the details. For the Seattle performance, MOR commissioned Svigals to add a clarinet part for Seattle luminary Laura DeLuca.
Lori Laitman is one of America’s leading composers of art songs, with over 250 songs and three operas to her credit. This concert marks her third commission for Music of Remembrance, the Seattle-based organization that performs music of Holocaust composers and commissions new works on Holocaust themes.
Laitman’s two vocal compositions on the program are very different, and yet related. The texts are by Paul Celan, a survivor who became one of the leading literary voices out of the Holocaust, and his younger cousin Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, who perished in a forced labor camp at age 18. Both were German-speaking Jews from a part of then-Romania that is now part of the Ukraine. MOR artistic director Mina Miller has long wished to present settings of Celan and Meerbaum-Eisinger’s poetry together.
During the last three years of her life, Meerbaum-Eisinger produced a handwritten notebook of 57 poems titled “Harvest of Blossoms.” The manuscript passed through several hands during the war, and was eventually rediscovered and published.
For “In Sleep the World is Yours,” Laitman has set three of Meerbaum-Eisinger’s poems for soprano, piano and oboe, the latter evoking the young poet’s sensitive character and appreciation of nature. In the first poem, “Lullaby,” she wrote: Close your eyes and fall asleep, / listen, the forest is rustling. / In sleep there is no hate and no scorn, / and in sleep you are not cold.
The poems follow an emotional arc from hope to the assertion of an inner life, and finally to sadness and resignation.
Celan’s “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue) is one of the earliest published Holocaust poems, and still one of the most powerful. Celan writes of drinking “the black milk of daybreak,” that “Death is a master from Germany” who makes his Jews “shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped.” He alludes to “Faust,” contrasting the golden hair of Margarete with the ashen hair of a doomed Jewish woman.
Celan constructed his poem like a musical fugue, with darkly imaged phrases that he repeats, reorders and recombines. Laitman’s setting is scored for cello and voice, with tonal word-painting and a musical structure that mirrors the poem’s. Laitman composed the original German version in 2010 for Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair. The MOR performance is the premiere of the slightly revised English version.