Free Holocaust Remembrance Day concert at Benaroya Hall

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Photo from Flickr by Ted Eytan)
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Photo from Flickr by Ted Eytan)

The Holocaust may seem far away — in time and distance — from contemporary Seattle.

But memories from this darkest chapter in modern history will be brought to life Wednesday night at Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, through the concert Art from Ashes.

The concert will feature eight performances, all but one of works by composers who were killed by the Nazis. It was curated by Music of Remembrance, a Seattle-based arts non-profit dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust through music.

The concert falls on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which honors the date that the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland was liberated by Soviet forces. The United Nations General Assembly established the annual day of remembrance in 2005 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

“Memories fade but the music remains,” says Mina Miller, founder and artistic director of Music of Remembrance. “Through the music you can really experience what might have been.”

Miller, a classical pianist from New York City, originally came to Seattle for personal reasons. But she says, the vibrant music and arts scene gave her a broad base of people to involve once she started the organization in 1998.

“Seattle has great musicians, the symphony is fabulous,” she says.

Most of the instrumentalists for her concerts are drawn from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s principle players. And former Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz helped Miller promote her organization’s early work.

A supportive local Jewish community also buoyed Miller’s efforts. Many of the estimated 63,400 Jews in greater Seattle – a population that has grown by 70% alongside the city’s overall population boom – experienced the Holocaust somewhere on their family tree, from harrowing tales in Eastern Europe to lesser known stories from the Sephardic world in Greece. According to Dee Simon, Executive Director of the Holocaust Center for Humanity, there are approximately 200 survivors living in the Pacific Northwest. The Center opened last October in Belltown as the first Holocaust museum in the Pacific Northwest.

Local Jewish philanthropists Jack and Adina Almo sponsored tomorrow night’s concert.

Several of the pieces at the performance, including Robert Dauber’s Serenata and Zikmund Schul’s Chassidic Dances, were composed in the Terezín concentration camp, a Potemkin village “model” camp set up by the Nazis in their attempt to deceive the international community. As part of this farce, Terezín had its own orchestra. Other works to be performed at Art from Ashes were written in the Vilna Ghetto, which even under desperate conditions during the war maintained a semblance of the cultural life that earned Vilna the nickname “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

While the programming at Benaroya Hall will focus on the Jewish experience during the Holocaust in light of the Auschwitz anniversary, Miller is quick to point out that Music of Remembrance is not a Jewish organization.

“We try to illuminate things beyond the Jewish experience,” she explains. “We have commissioned works about gays, Gypsies, women, and political dissidents in order to get our audience to think about the Holocaust in new ways.”

The same goes for her performers. You don’t have to be Jewish to play this material, Miller says. The concert will open with a rendition of Hebrew Melody performed by Takumi Taguchi, a 14-year-old Japanese violin prodigy and winner of this year’s Music of Remembrance youth award.

“He plays with the soul of an old Jewish man,” Miller says, laughing. She will accompany him on piano.

Takumi Taguchi plays the “Hebrew Melody” at a Music of Remembrance concert last March.

But plenty of Jewish musicians also take on these emotionally difficult works. According to Miller, many of the talented instrumentalists in Seattle are Russian Jews who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s.

“They were always discriminated for being Jews and suffered persecution, but they never played anything resembling Jewish music,” Miller says. “These people play it passionately, they breathe it.”

In addition to performing concerts of Holocaust-era compositions, Music of Remembrance commissions at least one new work annually. Generally, the piece then gets its world premiere in Seattle before going global. A case in point is Letter to Warsaw, a song-cycle for soprano and orchestra by Thomas Pasatieri that premiered at Benaroya Hall in 2004 before landing a coveted place in the concert hall of the Israeli Holocaust memorial for Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day as observed on the Jewish calendar.

Already, the organization is looking ahead to the May 22 world premiere of Out of Darkness, a new opera by acclaimed composer Jake Heggie, that will tell two Holocaust stories — one of a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, the other of a gay German, partially Jewish, in wartime Berlin. As is the case with Music of Remembrance’s riveting commissions, Seattle will have a front row seat.

Art from Ashes is a free concert in Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall on Wednesday, January 27 at 5:00 pm. Tickets can be reserved here.

This post has been updated.