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Krása: Brundibár soloists, cond. Gerard Schwarz, dir. Erich Parce, Music of Remembrance Ensemble, Northwest Boychoir, Vocalpoint! Seattle; Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 09.05.2006 (BJ)

Presented by the Seattle organization Music of Remembrance, founded and directed by Mina Miller with the purpose of “ensuring that the voices of musical witness be heard,” Krása’s Brundibár played to full houses on successive evenings in the smaller of Benaroya Hall’s two auditoriums. This was one of those ad hominem occasions where to offer anything in the nature of a formal review seems almost presumptuous–any negative criticism of the work lays a critic open to the imputation of inhumanity. For Hans Krása (1899-1944) was one of the composers imprisoned by the Nazis and eventually murdered in Auschwitz, and he revised his children’s opera, composed originally in 1938, in the Terezín camp, where he was interned on his arrest in 1942. Brundibár had 55 performances there in 1943-44.

A leaflet handed out at these Seattle performances described the “long story short”: “Humble little people overthrow a tyrant.” Many of the performers in Terezín were indeed children, and nearly all of them ended their lives in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, for which purpose Terezín served as one of the Nazis’ principal collection points: it is estimated that, of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezín, only about 100 survived. One of those survivors was Ela Stein Weissberger, who played the role of the Cat in the original production, and she was on hand in Seattle to talk about the work. The evening began with a sprightly performance of Krása’s Overture for Small Orchestra, with Craig Sheppard as solo pianist. This was followed at the 9 May performance by In Memoriam, for cello and string quartet (or string orchestra), composed by Gerard Schwarz to honor the memory of the former Seattle Symphony cellist David Tonkonogui. Strongly but not abrasively chromatic in harmonic character, it featured a finely phrased solo by the conductor’s young son Julian Schwarz, who was a pupil of Tonkonogui’s. Then Bob Goldfarb interviewed Ms Weissberger, who needed little prompting to give a touching yet at the same time amazingly restrained and un-self-pitying account of Brundibár and its history.

She received a standing ovation, and she proved an almost impossibly hard act to follow. Like the overture we had heard at the beginning of the evening, Brundibár is the product of a genuine talent. Conquering my hesitation as best I can, however, I have to say that the talent is a small one. Krása was a real composer, but though his craftsmanship is excellent, there is a degree of banality in his actual inspiration, especially in the rhythmic sphere, that I think makes immortality unlikely for him. The audience entered fully into the spirit of this story, presented in a fluent English adaptation by Tony Kushner, as the two children at the center of the plot got the better of their emblematically cruel persecutor. Gerard Schwarz, whose involvement in so many worthwhile Seattle musical enterprises continues to astonish me, conducted with enormous commitment and vitality, Erich Parce’s stage direction and Jennifer Zeyl’s set and costumes were just right, and all the singers and players fulfilled their parts no less splendidly. But somehow it was revealing that the high point of the evening came at the end, when the indomitable Ms Weissberger, whose lively presence belies what her age must surely be, returned to the stage to sing in the final ensemble. In the end, if the music fell short of greatness, the program as a whole was profoundly affecting, and anyone who failed to be moved by it must have a heart of stone.

Bernard Jacobson




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)