Words from Holocaust turned into music

PREVIEW

What: New Music Festival
When/where: Two concerts: Music for a Sacred Space, March 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral. Soundscapes and Landscapes, March 11, 8 p.m. at Alix Goolden Performance Hall
Tickets: $15/$20. Festival passes are $25. Call 250-385-6515 or visitvictoriasymphony.ca/nmf

 

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The Victoria Symphony’s composer-in-residence has given new life to the family letters of a Jewish couple who were imprisoned in a Nazi camp.

For Lament of the Wind, having its world première on March 11, Jared Miller uses excerpts from letters written by Shulamit and Yizkhak Rabinovitch. They were prisoners in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania during the Second World War. The ghetto imprisoned Lithuanian Jews, most of whom were sent to concentration camps.

“They wrote these moving farewell letters to their sons. I was particularly touched by these when I was writing the piece,” Miller, 28, said from his home in New York City.

Lament of the Wind will be performed by the Victoria Symphony for a concert called Soundscapes and Landscapes, one of two presented by the orchestra’s New Music Festival.

Brass players will whisper excerpts of the letters, using the bells of their instruments to amplify the recitations. Miller will also read from the letters in his pre-concert chat.

“The text is heartbreaking because the writers don’t even know if the letters will ever reach their children, and because the writers feel as though their salvation is near, yet also don’t think they will live to see it,” he said.

The Rabinovitchs were sent to separate concentration camps, Dachau and Stuttof, but survived the war. Miller discovered their fate only this week after further researching their history.

“I was very moved … and wish that this had been the case for more people who were victims in the Holocaust, including much of my family,” he said.

Inspiration for Lament of the Wind comes from Miller’s visit a decade ago to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust remembrance centre. His journey there as an 18-year-old was sponsored by Birthright Israel, a non-profit educational organization that provides such trips for young Jewish people.

Yad Vashem has a hall containing the names of people who died in the Holocaust, including biographical and other information. Miller found this especially moving. Afterwards, he stood on a balcony at the centre overlooking Jerusalem.

“I could hear the cries and howls of the wind. And this rustling sound. I happened to associate it with the whispers of the people who were lost, the lamenting cries for their loss,” he said.

The visit to Yad Vashem had special resonance for Miller. On his mother’s side, 11 relatives died in the Holocaust, including his great-grandparents.

“Some were shot in mass graves, some perished in other concentration camps [Treblinka, Buchenwald and Auschwitz] and some perished in the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto,” he said.

Although Miller describes Lament of the Wind as an accessible work — both lyrical and atmospheric — it features a number of unorthodox elements. For instance, musicians blow across the openings of 10 glass bottles, filled with different levels of fluid, to create a wind-like effect. There are also flutes and slide whistles sliding between the pitches, as well as wind chimes.

Brass players are to be positioned on both the upper and lower levels of the Alix Goolden Performance Hall, surrounding the audience in sound. A piano will be played off stage. The notion is to provide an immersive sound experience.

“I’m hoping people will find it a special experience. It’s not every day you get to experience this kind of concert and this kind of music.”

Miller was named composer-in-residence of the Victoria Symphony in 2014. Then 25, he was one of the youngest composers to achieve such a position in North America, said music director Tania Miller (no relation).

“When we hired Jared Miller, we saw a future with great potential. We wanted to be the orchestra that hired him,” said the conductor, who describes Lament of the Wind as “incredibly moving and beautiful”.

Miller was once named one of CBC’s hottest classical musicians under 30. Born in Los Angeles, he grew up in Burnaby, taking a degree at the University of British Columbia. He then moved to New York, where he is completing his doctorate in music at the Julliard School.

He plans to continue composing and to teach, and has upcoming commissions with the Toronto Symphony and the Detroit Symphony.

His three-year term with the Victoria Symphony comes to a close on May 31. However, Miller has already written other new pieces for the orchestra to be premièred next season.

Miller said he’ll miss collaborating with the Victoria Symphony, describing the experience as “wonderful.”

“It’s been a real gift for me to try new things with the orchestra, and then have them work sometimes, and not have them work out other times,” he said.

“So I’ve had many opportunities to refine my craft as an orchestral composer.

“Many composers get just one or two shots at orchestral pieces. I really have no words to say how lucky I feel.”

 

Music for a Sacred Space, the first concert in the New Music Festival, features choral music written especially for Christ Church Cathedral. Singers from Victoria choirs will be positioned (and will move) throughout the space.

The program includes Isjorn!, composed by Victoria’s Nicholas Fairbank and inspired by a trip he took to the Arctic. Isbjorn! features three choirs: the CapriCCio Vocal Ensemble, Ensemble Laude and the Sequoia Women’s Ensemble.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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