Last night’s Minnesota Orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall was a gut-wrenching experience I expect to be digesting for a very long while. It was a reprise of a major concert two seasons ago on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, which saw the premiere of To Be Certain of the Dawn, an hour-long oratorio with music by Stephen Paulus and words by Michael Dennis Browne. Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra are recording it this week. The oratorio formed the major part of the concert, and was psychologically set up by an extremely effective trio of works on the first half.
Olivier Messiaen’s Abyss of the Birds for solo clarinet from the Quartet for the End of Time, which was written in 1940 while the composer was a prisoner of war, was played gorgeously by Burt Hara, who coaxed supple pianissimos out of nothingness and formed a desolate, plaintive, and ultimately hopeful world with his range of expression. Hara’s solo merged into Steve Heitzeg’s Wounded Fields for string orchestra, which is an elegy to all the victims of war. Heitzeg has an utter mastery of emotional, sweeping gestures that are at once heartbreaking and ennobling. With Wounded Fields, so sensitively rendered by the orchestra, he created a nearly visible depiction of the landscape that inspired him—the battlefields of Gettysburg overgrown with wildflowers. Janet Horvath soloed on Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre for solo cello and orchestra. Kol Nidre, the prayer for absolution and release from oaths, is chanted on the Day of Atonement in the Jewish tradition and dates to the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were forced to renounce their faith. This performance had additional layers of meaning—because Bruch wrote music on Hebrew themes, his children were nearly victims of the Third Reich, and Horvath’s own parents were Holocaust survivors. Whether that informs her performance of this somber work or not, her playing is infused with a heartfelt passion.
Father Michael O’Connell, rector of the Basilica of Saint Mary, commissioned To Be Certain of the Dawn as a gift to the Jewish community in general, and Temple Israel in particular, in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the death camps. It is also inspired by Pope John Paul II’s 1998 statement on the Shoah, acknowledging that Jews were not responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
The oratorio begins (and ends) with the sound of the shofar, or ram’s horn, and Hebrew chanting by Barry Abelson, Temple Israel’s cantor. The first of the work’s three major sections, “Teshuvah (Renewal),” begins with the choir pleading to God to “create a great emptiness in me.” It is a desperate prayer that is answered ferociously—Paulus provides a violent acid torrent to wash out the wound. The self-reflective text is heavy with grief and guilt, and asks, "How did we think we might be recognized as You in all we failed to do?" A simple commandment from the Book of Leviticus, “You should love your neighbor as yourself,” that was found scrawled in both Hebrew and German on the ruins of a temple following Kristallnacht, serves as a leitmotif and is sung throughout the work in Hebrew, German, and English.
The second major section, “Remembrance,” is a beautiful and haunting homage to the victims of the Holocaust, especially the children. Pre-Holocaust photos from Roman Vishniac’s book, Children of a Vanished World, were projected and given imagined stories, poignantly told by a quartet of soloists (soprano Elizabeth Futral, mezzo Christina Baldwin, tenor John Tessier, and bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos). I was struck by how quotidian the words Browne gave them were: two little girls eat bread and show off a new red coat; a boy wishes “it didn’t hurt where my tooth came out;” a grandfather dozes against a tree and dotes on his grandson. But each bears an undercurrent of hardship and dread, like fears of the knock on the door. These portraits are harshly punctuated by the chorus uttering the Nuremberg Laws, such as “Jews may not attend school; Jews may not ride bicycles...”
Throughout the work, the children’s voices (provided by the extremely well-prepared Minnesota Boychoir and Basilica’s Cathedral Choristers) offer blessings. The sublime words and music in the “Hymn to the Eternal Flame” sung by the Minnesota Chorale and the Basilica Cathedral Choir, children’s choruses and soprano solo, were what finally undid me, though—they called to mind both a potent symbol of not forgetting as well as the awful fire of the crematoriums—“every trembling in you, every blessing, every soul, every shining, woven into fire.”
The final major section, “Visions,” suggests peace rather than conflict, and also sets the words of Holocaust survivors. The last of those voices, Hinda Kibort’s, seems to sum up the spirit of the entire hour-long work: “I have lived in a world with no children . . . I would never live in a world of no children again.” The work’s final major chord alternates with the inherently unsettling tritone that by its nature defies resolution. The message is clear—the work of healing is not over, but rather it is handed to the listener. The final words, sung in Hebrew by the choruses and cantor, again call out the central commandment: “You should love your neighbor as yourself.”