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CityMusic Cleveland: Persistence of Creativity, an intergenerational project (Part I)
Mike Telin, April 2, 2012

The mission of CityMusic Cleveland is “to develop audiences and build communities through the arts. And while many are familiar with the acclaimed chamber orchestra's free concerts that are presented in Cleveland neighborhoods and surrounding communities, each spring CityMusic presents an intergenerational project that addresses social issues. Last season CityMusic took up the topic of bullying by commissioning Margaret Brouwer's Daniel and Snakeman, for narrator and chamber orchestra. The futuristic plot centers around a bully who attempts to prevent people from different cultures and faiths from living together and getting along with each other.

“City Music is all about community engagement, and the spring intergenerational projects create opportunities for persons of all ages to come together in order to discuss topics of social concern,” says Rebecca Schweigert-Mayhew, principal oboist of CityMusic (left). “They bring in people who are not necessarily interested in an orchestra concert but are interested in the subject matter. They're an innovative means through which CityMusic strives to develop the audience for classical music in northeast Ohio.”

This season's intergenerational project, Persistence of Creativity, examines the issues of discrimination, oppression, scapegoating, and genocide using the children’s opera Brundibár by Hans Krása with libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, as the point of departure to advance the discussion of oppression as a current and pressing contemporary issue. In addition to the performances of Brundibár, CityMusic has created a series of chamber music series, programmed by Schweigert-Mayhew. “Eugenia Strauss asked me to program a chamber music series for the project, and at first we were only thinking of composers who were impacted by the Holocaust. But during our discussions, we quickly realized that because genocide is a worldwide problem that has persisted throughout history, we needed to take a more expansive view of the chamber music possibilities.”

This more expansive examination of chamber music possibilities was not without its cause for concern. “I knew it would be fairly easy to find Holocaust related compositions; for example, music written at Theresienstadt is very well documented. But I was not so certain the same would be true when it came to other instances of genocide in places such as the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Armenia, Rwanda, and Bosnia.” But once the research had begun all initial concerns were put to rest. “I honestly did not expect to find very much when I started looking. The Holocaust occurred at a time and place where classical chamber music was a prevalent cultural idiom, but such was not the case for most of the other genocides. But music pours from every culture, and we were able to create a program including both folk music and sophisticated compositions in a compelling mix.”

Although the first chamber music concert titled The Emigrants already took place on February 20 at the Lakewood Public Library, it needs to be mentioned for the purpose of highlighting the scope of Schweigert-Mayhew’s work. The concert was held in conjunction with a Maurice Sendak exhibit. “Sendak’s own parents escaped the Holocaust, but much of his family did not, and this fact colored his entire life.” The concert included works by Hanns Eisler, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Franz Reizenstein, Eric Zeisel and Alexander Zemlinsky. But it was the research on Eric Zeisel, who went on to work as a Hollywood film composer, that led to some interesting correspondence: “When we contacted the Zeisl foundation for more information, we were put in touch with his daughter, Barbara Zeisl Schoenberg. Yes, that Schoenberg — she married Schoenbergʼs son Ronald, and she was delighted to hear of our interest in her fatherʼs music. We were initially looking for one of his travel film scores, something called “Spanish Dance.” Our original idea — one we abandoned due to time constraints — was to contrast it with his “real” music, the second quartet which was played in February. Not knowing this, Barbara wrote with concern, protesting that the travel film score was not at all representative of her fatherʼs work. Once she understood what we were planning, however, she wrote:

Dear Rebecca! I am thrilled about the prospect of your performing the quartet which is a wonderful work, and the second movement is really so beautiful, my mother loved it and I love it and am so moved whenever I hear it. It is as if my father were gently reproaching his fate with almost silent but musical tears.

I am so delighted about your whole concert concept! Best wishes, Barbara

The second concert, Composers of Theresienstadt will be held on Wednesday, April 11, at 7:00 pm at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. The concert features works by Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann.

Theresienstadt was the concentration camp where many intellectuals, artists, musicians, scientists and other educated and prominent Jews were sent. The camp had a rich cultural life, including over fifty-five performances of Brundibár, and regular performances of the Verdi Requiem led by composer/conductor Raphael Schächter. “In researching this concert I talked to Edgar Krása, who was a chef in Theresienstadt and knew the composers, and Ela Weissberg, who, as the Cat in all fifty-five productions of Brundibár, also knew them all. Their incredible stories brought a searing vividness to the project.”

The third concert, The Persecuted, will be held on Saturday, April 14, at 2:00 pm at the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library, and features the music of Alexander Arutiunian (Armenian Genocide), Valerie Coleman’s arrangements of Spirituals (African-American Slaves), Tan Dun (Chinese Cultural Revolution), Dmitri Shostakovich (Stalinist Russia), Enoch Mankayi Sontonga (Apartheid South Africa), and Greg Stenicke (Native Americans).

As Schweigert-Mayhew points out, “this is not intended to be an exhaustive survey of chamber music that is related to the subject of genocide and persecution; there is no way we could have done that.”

There is one composition that is common to all three chamber music concerts: each concludes with Just.Are.Same. for oboe and string quartet with electronic track) by Cleveland composer Paul Cox. “The work combines balophon music with fragments of Albinoni to accompany spoken text drawn from victim testimony, news broadcasts and war crimes trials related to the Holocaust and the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. The title comes from a speech by a Rwandan survivor who questions why genocide keeps occurring despite our best efforts to prevent it. She concludes with her own solution: Ask parents to teach their children that all people are created the same, “just are same.”

Rebecca Schweigert-Mayhew has come out of this research project a different person: “Yes, I am a different person, it has made me a lot less shy to say something. Genocide has occurred throughout history and around the globe, in both primitive and highly advanced, civilized cultures. Genocide has occurred in my parents’ lifetime, in mine, and also, most shockingly, in my children’s. Our point is that big heroic gestures are not where it starts, it’s the small daily things like stopping someone from being mean to someone else on the playground. All of us must have no tolerance for intolerance, on a daily, one-on-one basis. “

This is the first of two articles about CityMusic Cleveland’s intergenerational project, Persistence of Creativity.