PETER FINNERTY/SAGAMORE STAFF
The normal crowds of people in attendance were replaced by empty seating. Musicians, some masked, played to cameras instead. Despite the difficulties and changes brought by the Coronavirus, the show had to go on. Hundreds tuned in as the Terezin Music Foundation’s 2020 Virtual Gala premiered on Nov 9, celebrating the art that flourished in the Terezin concentration camp during the Holocaust and keeping the legacy of those affected by Nazi atrocities alive. The performance included many distinguished artists and members of Camerata at the high school.
The gala’s celebration of those that survived Terezin includes many pieces of important works that emerged through the brutal and inhumane conditions. The event began with Mark Ludwig, executive director of the Terezin Music Foundation, welcoming those watching and introducing the first piece. Ludwig introduced Erwin Schulhoff, a Jewish composer from the Czech Republic, detailing both his career and his personal life before finally retelling how he died of disease in a camp.
After Ludwig’s words, Philipp A. Stäudlin and Yoko Hagino played Hot-Sonate, each playing the saxophone and piano respectively. Jazz’s influence on Schulhoff’s work is clear; however, it still remained distinct from many of the pieces that come to mind with American jazz.
The piece was punctuated by conflicting feelings; occasionally slow and more melancholic, sometimes faster and more upbeat. Still, the conflict never felt jarring, as the piece seamlessly slipped between moods. This contrast of moods was accompanied by a contrast in the style of instruments — the piano’s staccato notes were different from the saxophone’s smooth flow, making the listening experience engaging and enjoyable.
Another composer Ludwig introduced was Pavel Haas. Haas, a prominent Czech composer, was barred from performing after the Nazi occupation of his country due to racial laws instituted. He was also forced to divorce his wife to prevent his family from being sent to a concentration camp. Haas’s last work, “Four Songs to Chinese Poetry,” was a tribute to his loneliness and longing for his family.
Francis Roger as a tenor and Yoko Hagino on the piano performed one part of this last piece, “A Sleepless Night.” The piece began with a mournful piano before Roger opened with a slower, deeper melody. While this tone continues for most of the song, it is juxtaposed with the ending, fit with a cheerful piano tune and Roger’s joyous singing. As Ludwig noted, it represented Haas’s hopefulness that he would see his family again. Although without this context, it might have made the piece seem confusing, with this context, the ending effectively moved the listener to feel the weight of Haas’s story and leave with a deeper appreciation of the piece’s composition.
Following the performance, Norman L. Eisen presented Madeleine Albright with the Terezin Legacy Award, dedicated to those who have done prominent work in the fight for human rights and peace.
Albright was the first woman to become U.S. Secretary of State, serving from 1997 to 2001. While she and her immediate family fled Czechoslovakia before the invasion, she later found out about her Jewish ancestry and that three of her grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust. While researching for her book, “Prague Winter,” she learned that her grandparents had stayed in Terezin for some time.
While Albright recognized the horrors of the Nazis, she noted that she did not come away from her research despondent. Instead, she thought about the courage of the people who survived, including those who persevered through the Blitz, or joined the Czech resistance.
For Albright, while many victims are lost to history with barely anything to remember them by, it is critical to continue to remember and honor those who perished.
“We are their trace. And as the Terezin Music Foundation reminds us, we can and must keep their legacy alive,” Albright said.
Alongside Madeline Albright, the Terezin Legacy Award was also given to Anna Ornstein. Holocaust survivor herself, Ornstein was a distinguished professor of psychiatry, advocate against antisemitism, and proponent of education about the Holocaust.
While Ornstein felt that the world was apathetic to what had happened, she said the Terezin Music Foundation helped her feel differently.
“And when we finally smelled the black smoke of Auschwitz, I wondered if anyone knew or cared what was happening to us. Even after we arrived in the United States, I was convinced that nobody cared,” Ornstein said. “Terezin Music Foundation had proven me wrong. They had done more than keep the memory alive, to remember these horrendous events. They created music that helped us to heal our wounds.”
After all of the guest speeches and music, Ludwig acknowledged the abnormal circumstances of the gala due to the Coronavirus and wished listeners goodbye.
“I can’t help but think about when we will be together again in 2021,” Ludwig said. “Until then, as Anne Frank wrote in her diary: be kind, have courage. We wish you good health, and we close with music of compassion and courage.”
The gala ended with “We Shall Overcome,” arranged by Brother Dennis Slaughter and performed by the Boston Community Gospel Choir, Coro Allegro, and the Brookline High School Camerata Choir.
The song began at a calm yet upbeat pace before transitioning into a faster, more hopeful version of itself. With that change came a shift in visuals; the black and white photographs of previous movements for civil rights were replaced with modern movements in vibrant color. The song succeeded in not only uplifting the listener but also just being fun to listen to. The last visuals were that of holding hands and hearts spray-painted onto a wall, solidifying the song’s message––that a better world is possible.
While the pieces were often quite distinct from each other, they all shared masterful composition, great technical skill from the performers, and were complemented by important stories to create a beautiful experience.