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Invocations for Our Shattered Vessel

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/19/2023 -  
Lera Auerbach: Symphony No. 6 “Vessels of Light”
Karen Tanaka: Guardian Angel

Elizaveta Ulakhovich (Soprano), Amy Maude Helfer (Mezzo‑soprano), WooYoung Yoon (Tenor), Christopher Job (Bass-Baritone), Motl Didner, Stephanie Lynne Mason (Whisperers), Kristina Reiko Cooper (Cello)
New York City Opera Chorus, Zalmen Mlotek (Chorus Master), New York City Opera Orchestra, Constantine Orbelian (Director and Principal Conductor)

C. Sugihara/L. Auerbach

We must remember that these refugees are human beings, with hopes, dreams, and families. We cannot turn our backs on them in their time of need.
Chiune Sugihara

Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
Fyodor Dostoevsky

The name Oskar Schindler is known to the world. But he was only one of 28,000 Gentiles who saved Jews from the Nazi invasion. But Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Vice-Consul to Lithuania during the Second World War, joined that rare halcyon–“The Righteous Among the Nations”–who helped Jewish refugees to escape the Nazi terror.

Those with visas to Japan–which was being forced to follow the Nazi commands–were given safety by Mr. Sugihara through manifold tactics. The reason was care, humanity, bravery with an understanding that Man- and Womankind share the life and death.

How many non-Adventists, non-gypsy, non-homosexuals were saved with the same judicious dedication is beyond numerical memory. But those who follow the path of Mr. Sugihara can never be forgotten.

Mr. Sugihara has benefited recently from scholarship and literary accolades. Last night, though, he was given an emotionally rewarding duo of music in his dedication, sponsored by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Karen Tanaka, Tokyo‑born but now a resident of Los Angeles, offered Guardian Angel, inspired by a quote from Exodus: “I will send an angel to keep thee on the way.” After this short moving piece, Russian‑born composer, pianist, conductor, painter Lera Auerbach wrote her Sixth Symphony subtitled Vessels of Light. And this was far far more complicated, more perplexing.

Ms. Tanaka’s composition, Guardian Angel, seemed, at first hearing, to be philosophically, not materially angelic. Not fierce St. Michael, not a Raphael cherub. This guardian angel music was seraphic, amorphous, athematic, almost opaque. From a pentatonic haziness, Concertmaster Laura Frautschi offered sweet, iridescent, crystalline lines. They were partly complements, partly prayers against an orchestral background which was shaded, dark‑hued. Not so much emotional as comforting. And conducted with subtle nuance by New York City Opera musical director.

C. Oberlian/K. R. Cooper
(© Courtesy of the Artist/Alon Shafransky)

Nuance, though, was only part of Lera Auerbach’s Sixth Symphony, written for massive, almost Mahlerian forces. First, the New York City Opera Orchestra, along with the New York City Opera Chorus. Add to this soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass‑baritone and two “whisperers”. And add to that cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, her notes based on “gold powder” (see below).

Augmenting the forces were some poems and lines from Psalm 121 which mightily complicate this most complicated work. The major work was Violoncello by the famed Ukrainian poet Dovid Hofshteyn. The poem contains almost endless images, paeans to death, vibrations, train journeys and the meaning of life itself. Looking at the screen translation, one is literally dazzled.

So dazzled, in fact, that one would like to sit on in a fragrant meadow or in a dimly‑lit room and read the poem in utter silence. Not even a Bach Cello Suite in the background.

Last night, though, framing it with those musical forces, as well as Ms. Auerbach’s stated technique of Japanese Kintsugi–filling in the repair of broken pottery with gold powder glue–simply befuddled me.

Was I to breathe the fierce enigmatic poetry of Dovid Hofshteyn (who himself was executed during Stalin’s anti-Semitic paranoia)? To pray to the 121st Psalm? Recall quotes from other poets? Was I to listen to the ravishing cello prayers–the gold powder glue–by Kristina Reiko Cooper? Was I supposed to attempt to decipher two “whisperers” on each side of the stage? The consummate conducting of Mr. Orbelian? All of the above simultaneously?

Granted, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony used equally dense poetry by Goethe. Yet that could be simplified to a degree (revelation through art). Ms. Auerbach was working with a combination of metaphysical poetry, diverse echelons of artists, and an original conception celebrating human heroism.

I have been an admirer of Lera Auerbach for many years now. Her Sixth String Quartet is jagged, harsh, dissonant. Her Stabat Mater Dreams with themes from Pergolesi, have the most finespun timbres, the most original transmutations of 18th to 21st centuries.

But if one may forgive the culinary metaphor, she had given us in those earlier works a spoonful of Beluga, a forkful of gefilte fish, a plate of chocolate truffle cake. Last night, with all her sensitivity, genius and mastery, she concocted one of those grotesque New York deli sandwiches, heaps of everything thrown in.

When it was finished, the man sitting next to me rose and cheered, and I had the nerve to ask him why he liked it. “Oh, it’s very beautiful,” he said. And he was right. Though Ms. Auerbach was clearly aiming for something greater.

What struck me most outside the music was her written dedication. Not merely to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Not simply to the memories of the Sugaharas and Schindlers and others. Ms. Auerbach understands that the horror of exiles has never ended. From the Israeli exodus to Babylon to the plight of unwilling exiles on every continent today.

Thus, her dedication: “...to all those who risk everything to save others.” To which one can offer only l’chayim, Salaam, Paz, Mir, Amani, Hépíng, Heiwa, and every word for peace and joy on our shattered Earth.

Harry Rolnick



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