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Composers added beauty to a sad history
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 2:30 PM

CityMusic Cleveland is preceding performances of the children's opera "Brundibar" in May with "Persistence of Creativity," a series that explores genocide, with emphasis on the Holocaust. Members of the chamber orchestra opened the series Monday at the Lakewood Public Library with "The Emigrants," a program of music by composers who fled Germany or Austria after Hitler's rise or who put a stop to their own creativity while he was in power as a means of protest. It was an enlightening evening and a disturbing one for reminding us of harm inflicted upon humanity.

The organizer of the series is Rebecca Schweigert Mayhew, the orchestra's principal oboe, who shared telling information about the night's composers and music. The audience in the library's basement auditorium got only a taste of each composer's art. But the music confirmed the depth and individuality that these figures summoned under trying circumstances.

Several of the composers came to the United States only to encounter a country unwilling to celebrate their gifts. Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), who died only three years after his arrival, was represented by the first movement of his String Quartet No. 3, Op. 19.

The 1924 score's blend of Romanticism and Expressionism encapsulates Zemlinsky's distinctive style. The music is anguished and defiant, yet full of hopeful yearning. It was played with intense feeling by violinists Miran Kaleigh Kim and Masha Andreini, violist Caitlin Lynch and cellist James Jaffe. Franz Reizenstein (1911-68) fled Berlin for England, where he was among thousands held during the war on the Isle of Man. In two movements from the Partita for Flute and String Trio (1938), flutist Heidi Ruby-Kushious and the string quartet provided the wistful Sarabande with graceful shading and brought folksy allure to the Jig.

Among the most daring composers of his day, Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) nevertheless was treated badly by the United States, which deported him after he was blacklisted. His music alternates between serial complexity and vibrant accessibility. As played by the CityMusic members, the variations from his String Quartet, Op. 75 (1938) sounded piquant and dramatic.

In another sad story, Eric Zeisl (1905-59) was forced to write for Hollywood films, mostly without credit, rather than concentrate on concert music. The darkly beautiful slow movement from his String Quartet No. 2 (1952), with muted strings molding phrases of hushed and heartfelt yearning, reveals a composer of keen expressive gifts. Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-63) didn't leave his native Germany during the war, but he stopped producing works and refused to allow performances in his homeland. Along with symphonies, he wrote chamber music of invigorating rhythmic and thematic design, such as the Quartet No. 1 (1933), whose first movement the CityMusic players treated with compact urgency.

All of the CityMusic chamber programs leading up to "Brundibar" include "Just.Are.Same," a work by Cleveland composer Paul Cox that "memorializes those lost to genocide," he said in an introduction. The five-minute score for oboe and string quartet is accompanied by taped comments by victims of genocide. Cox weaves pizzicato tappings and a plaintive melody into an elegiac and fervent fabric, which Mayhew and her colleagues shaped to touching effect.