Atlanta: Music of Hope, Music of Fear

Mark Gresham
Mark Gresham
Photo by Angela Lee

Late January saw the presentation of two very different performance works that tackled the Holocaust as their theme.

Tikvah by composer/clarinetist Burton Beerman, received its Atlanta premiere January 21 in the Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel at Morehouse College, including first performances of three new choral movements recently added to the concert-length work.

For Beerman, an Atlanta native now at Bowling Green State University, it was a kind of homecoming. The composer has had other works performed in Atlanta, but this particular one forges a reconciliation of sorts, a coming to terms with the faith of his youth. Growing up in a conservative synagogue, Beerman recalls composing a piece for worship and showing it to his cantor, who looked, then laughed and tore it up in front of the young composer. An unsupportive talk with a rabbi did not help young Beerman understand the incident; apparantly his music contained religious ideas considered outside acceptable orthodoxy. Decades later, it took an encounter with theologian and Holocaust survivor Philip Markowicz to heal the rift of understanding between him and his religious heritage. At the same time, Markowicz was also coming to terms with his own past: the ability to write and speak openly and publicly about his own Holocaust experience.

Ultimately, the interaction not only produced Markowicz’s memoirs of the Holocaust, but also Beerman’s Tikvah, which makes extensive use of Markowicz’s voice and words on audiotape, and also includes the Kaddish. Like many of Beerman’s multidisciplinary works, this presentation involved video projection of his own creation and dancers (Celesta Haraszti and Anthony Elijah Gilmore).

Tikvah
Red Clay Saxophone Quartet and soprano Andrea Rae performing Tikvah
Photo ourtesy of Burton Beerman

But the core of the piece rests with a saxophone quartet and solo soprano. The soloist was soprano Andrea Rae, who is Markowicz’s granddaughter. The Red Clay Saxophone Quartet from South Carolina underscored Rae’s vocals and played the purely instrumental movements. The music made use of Jewish tunes, largely from Beerman’s memory, in sometimes cantorial and sometimes klezmer-infused manners in nine “movements” plus four “interludes,” in combinations ranging from solo sax to the full ensemble plus taped narration—in rhythmic, modern, and sometimes minimalist textures. The use of saxophone quartet is appropriate and significant because the sax was deemed by the Nazi regime as “decadence” of the Weimar era, associated with American jazz, blacks, and Jews—thus “degenerate.”

Thematic connections between the Jewish and African American diasporas were not lost in this presentation. Coinciding with both the 100th anniversary year of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and a weeklong extension of holiday celebrations following Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the event sought to recognize parallels between Jewish and African American experience.

The three new choral movements contribute to that, framing the overall work: an opening prelude, a prelude to the second half, and postlude, sung by the combined “interfaith chorus” of singers from The Temple on Peachtree and Ebenezer Baptist Church, conducted by Dr. Uzee Brown, Jr. “The text is my own,” says Beerman, “interwoven with biblical texts extracted by Philip.”

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The Center for Puppetry Arts is adamant that puppetry goes far beyond the confines of fuzzy characters for entertaining children. Among new productions for adults and older teens this year is Anne Frank: Within and Without, which ran January 19 through 29, and included a score for violin and electronic tape by Atlanta-based violinist-composer Chip Epsten.

Two actresses, Hope Mirlis and Janet Metzger, each dressed as Anne Frank, narrate the story while manipulating a variety of puppets in full view of the audience. Most are simple mannequins (the small kind used in art school) given heads and clothing to represent the principal historical characters. As actresses, Merlis and Metzger, who at first seem to portray parallels to Anne and her older sister, ultimately become two different sides of Anne’s personality as the story unfolds: the young eternally hopeful and the maturing worldly wise.

Tikvah
Chip Epsten, Hope Mirlis and Janet Metzger in Anne Frank: Within and Without
Photo courtesy of Center for Puppetry Arts

Other puppets are more threatening. There is a 3-D cubist Dutch “Jewish Council,” and a jack-in-the-box Gestapo officer. There is even a traditional Punch and Judy hand puppet scene about the increasing restrictions on Jews in Dutch law. The audience at first laughs as a taunting Punch shouts “Nein!” and whacks Judy after each legal pronouncement, but the scene turns terrifyingly macabre as Judy, wearing a yellow Star of David, pleads with the audience for help, then is repeatedly pummeled by the bat-wielding Punch whose screams of “Judy! Judy! Judy!” transform with each whack into “Jew! Jew! Jew!”, and she dies.

Not confined to the pit, Epsten is frequently onstage playing either violin or toy piano. He interacts with the others as a kind of wordless observer, an avatar of Jewish culture while he plays, influencing and reflecting upon the story as it unfolds. The most poignant scene involving all three is a dream lullaby, where the Anne doll is rocked to sleep amid the branches of a chestnut tree, Merlis singing “Oyfn Pripitchik,” familiar to many Jewish people from their childhood, while Epsten accompanies on violin, bowless, played in a folk manner like a mandolin.

But Epsten’s score hardly dwells on the sentimental. It opens with sounds of smashing glass, representing Kristalnacht where the story begins. “Hulyet Hulyet Kinderlekh,” a Yiddish children’s song (which essentially says “have fun now kids, childhood is fleeting”) forms a bitterly ironic underscore to the aforementioned Punch and Judy scene, but also later accompanies an attic scene where unfulfilled feelings between Anne and Peter begin to bud, then fade away before blooming.

Most menacing is the undercurrent of Epsten’s “cattle car” music near the end, where the mannequins are placed in a railroad boxcar, represented by a baby doll’s crib, and moved around to various concentration camps.

In the more than half-century that has passed since the Holocaust, the topic has been addressed by many composers, not always with innovative, engaging, or memorable results. But the book is hardly closed on new artistic insights, and if history is not to repeat itself as we become farther removed in time, we might heed the words from Beerman’s Tikvah:

I do not remember
how to not advertise my pain
yet I dare not forget
if there is to be relief
from this madness

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A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Mark Gresham is a composer, publisher, and freelance music journalist. He is a contributing writer for Atlanta’s alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, and was winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism in 2003.