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The Holocaust, always a difficult subject, becomes even more so when discussing artists who were affected by its horrors.

When confronted with such human tragedy it almost seems petty to lament the loss of art and other ephemeral things. But the fact remains that silencing the voice of an artist is also a profound loss for humanity, and that’s why the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s chamber concert, "The Last Expression: Music from the Camps," provides such an invaluable service.

Many composers - like Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Korngold and Ernst Krenek - were able to escape Nazi Germany and its annexed territories for shelter, freedom and a career in other parts of Europe or America. Others were not so lucky, perishing in concentration camps.

The second of the Philharmonic’s chamber music events at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, to be performed in the Iris and Gerald Cantor Auditorium on March 9, "The Last Expression" is noteworthy not only because it puts faces on several composers who perished at the hands of the Nazis, but also because it contains some very good music.

Many talented composers were silenced during World War II. The Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia housed no fewer than four accomplished Czech composers: Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas, Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann. All of them died in 1944 after they moved from Terezin to death camps like Auschwitz.

For "The Last Expression," Ted Wiprud, the orchestra’s director of education and community engagement - who programs this series with Evans Mirageas, artistic advisor to the Philharmonic - insists that these works are important musically, as well as historically.

"The history of music might have been somewhat different if they had survived," Wiprud says.

The structure of the concert takes note of their creativity and their legacy. "We wanted to have the first half of the concert to be music by those composers who were actually there in the camps," he says, "and not just the music that they wrote while in the camps, but also what they did beforehand. The second half of the program is centered on music that responded to the tragedy."

The program begins with Schulhoff’s First String Quartet, which was written in 1924. "That quartet is such a confident combination of sophisticated musicality and earthy folk music," Wiprud says. "It’s just a wonderful way to open the concert, because it gives you a sense of what the future held for these composers."

Following Schulhoff’s work, Krasa’s "Dance" and "Passacaglia and Fugue" - both of which he composed while interned in the camp - will be performed.

"Krasa wrote two pieces for string quartet while at Terezin, and neither of them seems to be a direct reflection of his life in the camp," says Wiprud.

"Although the ’Dance’ ends with a dissonant chord that may refer to their horrible existence, the ’Passacaglia and Fugue’ are absolute music, music which does not refer directly to these events."

Interestingly, film footage from the camp, documenting a Red Cross inspection when the Nazis made everyone put on a happy face for their visitors, includes a glimpse of several performing musicians. A silent excerpt from that film will be shown at the concert.

Krasa’s lovely children’s opera "Brundibar" ("Bumblebee" in Czech), composed in 1938, was also performed by kids in Terezin for the benefit of those Red Cross inspectors. Excerpts from that opera - whose eponymous villain has been likened to Hitler himself - will be sung by the Young People’s Chorus of New York.

For the concert’s second half, a memorial work by one of the biggest names of the contemporary music avant-garde will be played: Steve Reich’s 1988 magnum opus written for string quartet and tape, "Different Trains."

Wiprud describes the Reich work: "A string quartet plays along with a tape, and what’s on the tape are two layers of the Kronos Quartet playing, so in essence, you have three string quartets playing at once. In addition, there is another taped layer of voices and train whistles.

"The first movement (’America - Before the War’) is an innocent image of trains based on Reich’s childhood spent seeing each of his estranged parents by train," he says. "But the other two movements (’Europe: During the War’ and ’After the War’) are about the cattle cars in World War II. It’s a very evocative and moving piece from a New York Jewish composer that brings the issue right home to us."

"The Last Expression" coincides with the theatrical release of Roman Polanski’s Holocaust tale "The Pianist," which is up for seven Oscars. There was also a recent production in Manhattan of "Brundibar," and scheduled for later in March are concerts of Ullmann’s music by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and other ensembles.

Our necessary attempts at healing through art continue.


The Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Series presents "The Last Expression: Music from the Camps" at 3 pm on Sunday, March 9 at the Iris and Gerald Cantor Auditorium in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway. On May 18 at 3 pm, the Brooklyn Philharmonic will present "Pulp Music." Tickets are $15, $10 students and seniors. For more information, call (718) 622-5853 or visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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