David Arben was just a boy when he lost everyone he held dear in Nazi-occupied Poland. A Jewish child, he suffered privation and torture at three concentration camps and four forced labor camps. At one point, he was about to be shot or buried alive with 105 other people when he was pulled from the group at the last minute because he played violin.
It’s no wonder that Arben, later on as a 34-year member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, said “the violin is part of my body.” It’s also no surprise his story of survival and arrival in America was captured musically, in a bruising, startling chamber piece called “Haim,” by a young, Russian-born composer named Polina Nazaykinskaya. “Haim” makes its Pacific Northwest debut at 5 p.m. Nov. 1 in an online concert marking the season opener for Music of Remembrance, a Seattle organization that performs music related to the Holocaust.
The ticketed MOR concert program is called “To Life!” and can be viewed at any hour through Nov. 8 following its premiere. “To Life!” celebrates Arben and three other European musicians who survived the Holocaust and migrated to new homelands, not always with the happiest of results.
“They went on journeys to safety and freedom,” said Mina Miller, MOR president and artistic director. “They sought new lives.”
Besides the tribute to Arben (who died in 2017), “To Life!” will introduce many to the music of Austrian Hans Gál, who fled to Great Britain and was thrown into a camp of “enemy aliens” as a Jewish refugee; Bohuslav Martinů, who supported the Czech resistance and escaped to the United States; and Mieczysław Weinberg, a Polish musician who traveled eastward to the Soviet Union, where anti-Semitism kept his music officially ignored.
On the program is Gál’s exquisite 1949 “Piano Trio,” a piece that can’t help but inspire you to choreograph dancers in your imagination. Born in a village outside Vienna in 1890, Gál rose to prominence in Germany, until the Nazi takeover resulted in a prohibition of his music. He made his way to Edinburgh, Scotland, and in the decades after his internment, he was a force in British culture.
Martinů, born in a church tower in Policka, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), in 1890, was a musical maverick blacklisted and endangered following a radio broadcast of his musical tribute to Czech resistance fighters. From 1941 to 1953, he lived and taught music in America, where among his illustrious students was Burt Bacharach. He is represented in “To Life!” by his “Duo for Violin and Cello,” full of dense, challenging textures.
Also on the bill is Weinberg’s 1945 “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano,” a fascinating dialogue between two instruments, during which the clarinet takes on many moods, sounding almost inebriated at one point. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1919, Weinberg escaped the murder of his family by Nazis and arrived, at age 12, in the Soviet Union. He grew up as a prolific composer but was harassed and arrested as a Jewish man, and finally left alone after Stalin’s death.
For this concert, Miller brought together MOR’s core group of chamber players from the Seattle Symphony: violinists Mikhail Schmidt and Natasha Bazhanov, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, and cellist Walter Gray. She also invited several guests to augment the ensemble, including pianist Craig Sheppard, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, and violinist Rebecca Jackson, who commissioned “Haim.”
Faced with the same pandemic limitations as every other performing arts group, MOR decided to present four online concerts this year. But Miller is eschewing livestreaming for more polished productions. “To Life!” was already recorded by four cameras at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church.
Each of the season’s concerts will be available for eight days following its debut. Season ticket holders will be able to access the videos for six months.
Miller sees the “To Life!” theme of fleeing into the unknown as relevant to the world’s migrant crisis and the unpredictability of life during a pandemic.
“We’re all on a journey through the unexpected. The music that we’re sharing reminds us that is part of human history.”