Music of Remembrance, now in its 15th season, presented two world premieres in Benaroya’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall on Tuesday. “Farewell, Auschwitz,” the third work to have been commissioned from Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer by Mina Miller’s remarkable Seattle organization, is surely the finest thing the composer-librettist team — or anyone, for that matter — has created for MoR in the eight seasons of my acquaintance with its Holocaust-related programs.
Heggie’s distinctly individual way with texts could be called “bad word-setting.” But if it is bad, there is method in its badness: the frequent midsentence and even midphrase hesitations and pauses force the listener to think about the words, and the recurrent lengthening of seemingly unimportant syllables paradoxically makes the words pregnant with meaning.
In a preconcert conversation with Heggie, Scheer spoke about the need, in basing a work on poems written by Krystyna Zywulska while she was a prisoner in Auschwitz, to avoid sentimentality. He and Heggie have triumphantly succeeded in that aim. The prevailing atmosphere of their new work is of a clear-eyed confrontation with the horror of life in the camp, leavened even at times by surprising touches of humor.
In the seventh and last song, which bears the same title as the work as a whole, Scheer’s repeated bald asseverations that “it really happened … We were there” draw from Heggie a vocal and instrumental setting that has all the driving rhythmic impetus and dynamic force of old-style workers’ patriotic songs, yet brilliantly avoids banality. And the penultimate stanza, with its stirring declaration that “When winter winds blow/through the empty barracks/Our song will linger/And everyone will know,” comes as close as Miller could have wished to mirroring MoR’s stated mission of “ensuring that the voices of musical witness be heard.”
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The performance, by soprano Caitlin Lynch, mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen, baritone Morgan Smith, pianist Craig Sheppard and a quartet of Seattle Symphony members (Laura DeLuca, Mikhail Shmidt, Walter Gray and Jonathan Green), was beyond praise, and the ovation that followed was rewarded with an immediate encore of the last song — a rare treat at the premiere of a substantial piece of new music.
The need to do justice to such an important premiere in the space available must serve as my excuse for giving the evening’s other new work, a song-cycle version of the earlier Heggie-Scheer commission, “For a Look or a Touch,” relatively short shrift. Far the best thing in it, I thought, was its last movement, a wordless melody matching Morgan Smith’s almost unearthly vocal delicacy with Gray’s magically disembodied cello sound.
The evening had opened with Stefan Frenkel’s entertaining violin-and-piano arrangement of a suite from Weill’s “Threepenny Opera.” And in any other company but Heggie’s new work, László Weiner’s String Trio — Serenade, heard after intermission, might well have merited a review all its own: This music’s imaginative subtlety and wealth of invention made painfully clear what an enormous talent was extinguished with his murder in Auschwitz at the age of 28.
Bernard Jacobson: email@example.com