Songs of the Wasteland is an epic musical work –creation of Vancouver-based musician and teacher, Renia Perel–anda presentation of the Vancouver Academy of Music (VAM), falling on the eve of the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 26. A chamber ensemble of VAM faculty and leading Vancouver musicians will perform the piece to share a true story of survival and pay tribute to the millions killed and lost during the genocide.
The story of Perel is one of relenting hope and courage. Born in Poland in 1929, Perel and her older sister Henia started their journey in Southern Poland in 1941, it was the last time they saw their mother at the train station and eventually arrived in Canada in 1948 from Germany. The sisters were the only survivors in their family — both parents and young brother were killed, as well as other relatives.
The Nazi genocide included the mass murder of 6 million Jews and an additional 5 million non-Jews.
‘My music is my way of sharing my painful memories with the world. I hope that by sharing these memories with you, together we will find a way to heal the wounds of yesterday and bring hope for a better tomorrow,’ Perel has said about her work.
Perel’s opus made its debut at the Chan Centre in 2010. Four years later, she approached noted cellist and VAM’s executive director, Joseph Elworthy to bring the piece to the stage again. Vancouver-native Elworthy was already familiar with the piece and some of the cast, and had harboured the desire to perform it live.
‘Then by sheer coincidence Renia Perel approached me and said she had a long-standing record of working with community and arts groups throughout Vancouver, (…) and it became clear that the point of collaboration was definitely Songs of the Wasteland — a very important piece of music,’ Elworthy said over the phone.
After a meticulous preparation, Elworthy explains things fell into place scheduling the concert –just before the UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan 28). Elworthy, who played the cello for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for 12 years, will also play in this performance.
The chamber work includes seven musicians: VAM faculty members Elworthy (cello), Robyn Driedger-Klassen (soprano), and the concertmaster at the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Mark Ferris (Music Direction and violin), and Mark Fenster (baritone), Francois Houle (clarinet), Lani Krantz (harp), and Kozue Matsumoto (koto).
Songs of the Wasteland is a song cycle divided into two sections. The first From Tragedy to Triumph, ‘In terms of thematic direction is about remembrance and pain for those who lost their lives in concentration camps’. Elworthy explained. ‘Musically is somber in mood and character.’
It opens with Psalm 23: Verse 4 ‘Yea tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me”. The piece draws on elements of musical and linguistic fragments of pre-WWII European Jewish culture.
Towards the second part ‘Survival’, a metamorphosis takes places, turning into a more personal theme, entitled ‘Songs of Life’.
‘We got from talking about the Holocaust –which is a universal subject to something that is incredibly personal –that is Renia’s account of her love for her late husband’.
The koto, a Japanese traditional stringed instrument, is also present in the second part. It symbolizes the gratitude to the Japanese Consul Chiune Shuguhara, who helped to rescue thousands of Jewish people during WWII. Boris III, Bulgarian Tsar, who prevented the deportation and killing of 48,000 Bulgarian Jews, is also honoured.
The piece concludes with ‘Jerusalem’ that represents salvation and hope and ‘a desire for peace.’
The soprano and baritone sing mostly separately –the baritone plays the role of the cantor in a synagogue, infusing religious overtones. Meanwhile, the soprano’s songs are more secular in nature — they are about ‘the emotional reality of the Holocaust and, then later on , the experiences of (Perel’s) love for her husband Morris (Perel)’.
Elworthy points out that this piece is not only important for its profound and historical content, but as well serves the VAM’s to attain its mandate — to promote ‘the importance of music in form of the examined life and the enrichment of life’ amongst its 1,400 students.
‘We believe that productions such as Songs of the Wasteland will bring credibility to our belief that our own personal lives can be transformed through music.’
On the other hand, Elworthy describes the staging as minimalist and austere. A large screen will accompany the cast with scrolling names of Holocaust victims, part of the Vancouver Holocaust Memorial.
Along with the vocalists, six teenaged candle bearers –three girls and three boys — will stand on the wings on the stage symbolizing next generation’s hope, leadership and power.
In addition to the night show on January 26 (Koerner Recital Hall at the VAM, 7:30 pm) the VAM will offer a performance earlier same day for high school students.
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