November 19, 2018

Kristallnacht, honored musically

On Nov. 9, music by Samuel Adler, Steve Reich, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl will observe the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht as part of the enterprising Jacaranda concert series. 

Kristallnacht was the night in 1938 when the Nazis launched a two-day pogrom throughout Germany. Jews were beaten and murdered; synagogues were burned, Jewish stores ransacked. Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night” or “Night of Broken Glass”) was the tipping point of the Holocaust.

“The subject of the Holocaust really burrowed into my soul,” Patrick Scott, Jacaranda’s artistic director and co-founder, said by phone from his office. “Even if few people attend, there’s no way I wouldn’t do something for such an important anniversary.”

Scott wondered if he would have received more support if the program were instead presented at a synagogue rather than at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, but added, “This dimension is exactly what makes it special — the fact that it’s taking place in a church.”

“Does the Holocaust belong exclusively to the Jews? I hope not,” said Jonathan Kirsch, author of “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” the story of the young man blamed for igniting Kristallnacht (for an excerpt, see p. 18.) “The Holocaust is an event that affects everybody and should be present in everyone’s minds. And a Holocaust remembrance, whether it’s about Kristallnacht or something else, is entirely appropriate to take place in a church or mosque or synagogue or secular venue.”

Kristallnacht was deemed a failure by the Nazis. “It’s that turning point where they realized they couldn’t  chase the Jews out, and they couldn’t kill the Jews in place, because it was inefficient and destructive of German property,” Kirsch said. “But if you put them on trains and took them to the swamps of Eastern Poland, where nobody was watching, you could murder them by the millions.” 

The central piece on Jacaranda’s program is Reich’s Grammy-winning, 1988 “Different Trains” for string quartet and tape, which will be performed by the Lyris Quartet. One of the most powerful musical statements ever composed about the Holocaust, the score’s three movements literally give voice to the past.

The score was initially inspired by train trips Reich took as a child, traveling between the homes of his divorced parents, who lived in New York and California.

“The first movement is about my childhood,” Reich said. “It has nothing to do with the Holocaust. In fact, I didn’t even think the Holocaust would be part of the piece. But when I made those trips across the country, I thought, ‘What years did I do that? In 1937, ’38, ’39.’ If I had been born in Europe and not in America, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

In the first movement, Reich used recordings of his former governess, Virginia, and Mr. Davis, a retired Pullman porter. “As they reminisced about their lives, I took their speech melody,” Reich said. “In the case of a woman, I give it to the viola; a man, I give it to the cello. Then I thought, ‘What if I were to find Holocaust survivors on tape and then do the exact same thing?’ “

The score, commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by the late Betty Freeman, an influential Los Angeles-based patron of contemporary composers, uses the voices of three Holocaust survivors in the middle movement, with all five coming together in the third, because the survivors came to America.

Technically, Reich said, the work was “unbelievably difficult” to prepare. “It was totally unlike anything I’d ever done before,” he said. “One of the rules I made for myself was, as they speak, so I write. And people don’t speak at the same tempo or in the same key, so I had to choose things that made sense musically.”

Reich said he chose people who not only had incredible stories, but who also had a musical tone of voice. “I’m a composer, and it’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it,” Reich said. “The people who spoke had very melodic voices.”

Jacaranda will present the 2006 digital restoration of “Different Trains.” “The recordings of Holocaust survivors were done from a Yale archive on cheap cassette recorders from the 1970s,” Reich said. “They’re pretty funky, but they’ve been cleaned up, and it’s better than it was.”

Scott said he plans to include the libretto in the program book.

The Jacaranda program begins with Adler’s Canto XIV “Klezmer Fantasy.” After intermission, Mark Alan Hilt, Jacaranda’s co-founder, conducts three a cappella choruses by Schoenberg and concludes with Zeisl’s moving “Hebrew Requiem,” a setting of the 92nd Psalm for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra.

Composed in 1944-45 in memory of his father and other relatives lost in the death camps, the “Requiem” is among the earliest pieces written about the Holocaust.   

“It’s an affirmative, triumphant piece,” said Hilt, “with everybody singing full out at the end. The themes are beautiful, and Zeisl’s inscription on the score speaks of ‘consolation rather than sadness.’”

Indeed, Hilt ‘s comment goes a long way toward countering Scott’s worry that such a program may seem like a downer. “I hope people will feel they had an experience and will be better for it,” Scott said.