One was a Hungarian Jew deported to Auschwitz, another a Berliner who fled to Lithuania in 1939. Yet another was a German woman who published her last volume of poems just before Kristallnacht in 1938. All were gifted poets and composers — and none survived the Holocaust.
But their works, and those of other Jewish artists, miraculously did survive.
The Jewish Music & Poetry Project, launched by the East Bay-based chamber music group Ensemble for These Times, revives Holocaust-era poems and compositions, in some cases recasting them as 21st-century chamber works.
Some of those works will be on the program when the ensemble appears Nov. 2 and 8 at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.
Soprano soloist and project founder Nanette McGuiness and pianist Dale Tsang will join composer David Garner, a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music who set many of the Holocaust poems to music, for a Nov. 2 talk and recital.
On Nov. 8, McGuiness, Tsang and cellist Laura Gaynon will give a free concert featuring newly composed settings of three poems by East Bay poet and Hebrew translator Marcia Falk. But the main emphasis of the project overall is lost works of the Holocaust generation — some of which will also be performed.
“We want to draw awareness to the connection to a horrible past,” says McGuiness. “We want to bring [these poets and musicians] to audiences and make the connections more audible through music and song.”
The idea for the Jewish Music & Poetry Project originated five years ago while McGuiness visited friends in Germany. They introduced her to the music of Jewish composers who had fled the Nazis or died in the Holocaust. That was the first time she’d heard names like Edward Geist or Lajos Delej, and she was stunned by the quality of the music.
“For me it was an eye-opener,” McGuiness says. “Much of the music is really good, but you don’t study it in music class. It’s not part of mainstream music narrative. It was incredibly inspiring.”
As the project developed, she also found the works of obscure writers such as Rose Auslander, Mascha Kaleko and Gertrud Kolmar, the latter a Berlin-born poet whose third and final volume of poems was published in 1938 just before Kristallnacht. Kolmar became part of a slave labor force in a German munitions factory before being deported to Auschwitz, where she died.
The ensemble commissioned composer Kurt Erikson to write a setting of Kolmar’s poem “Die Schoenen Wunder” (the Beautiful Wonders) which includes the lines, “Oh, good: to flame in unmeasured splendor/Rather than, ripped from the hot earth/Witness a long dull life.”
Some of the music project’s pieces are instrumentals, such as the scherzo from a lost cello sonata by Hungarian composer Lajos Delej, murdered by the Nazis in 1945.
“All of Delej’s music has been lost,” McGuiness notes, “but [cello virtuoso] Janos Starker performed the scherzo in the 1950s on the BBC. It was recorded live, then disappeared into archives.”
Fortunately, a Hungarian musicologist researching Delej found the recording, and because no printed music could be found he transcribed by ear the cello and piano parts.
Thus the scherzo became the only work of Delej’s to survive. The Jewish Music & Poetry Project gave the North American premiere of the piece last year.
Despite her decidedly Irish last name. McGuiness was born Nanette Cooper in Boston, the daughter of Jewish parents of Russian and Hungarian ancestry. Growing up in Houston, she joined a Jewish youth group, but music was her main passion.
She earned a B.A. in music from Cornell and a Ph.D in musicology from U.C. Berkeley. Later she embarked on a singing career that included the opera stage and chamber music settings, singing everything from the soprano soloist role in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony to Handel’s Messiah.
The ensemble has recorded a CD and given many performances. One they hope to do next year is at the famed Jewish Music Festival in Krakow, Poland. They have a standing invitation, but McGuiness and her colleagues will need to raise money to make the trip.
Meanwhile, McGuiness enjoys every moment she puts into the Jewish Music & Poetry Project. “This is a way to reconnect to my Jewish heritage,” she says. “The strands wind their way back.”
Ensemble for These Times presents the Jewish Music & Poetry Project at 2 p.m. Nov. 2, and 3 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. www.pjcc.org or call (650) 212-7522.