Ma headlines, but pianist survivor steals show at Terezín Foundation gala

October 23, 2013 at 3:58 pm

By David Wright

Although Yo-Yo Ma topped the bill at the Terezín Foundation’s annual gala at Symphony Hall Tuesday night, the popular cellist was thoroughly upstaged in the event by a piece of living history who stood barely as high as his shoulder blades.

Prior to a distinguished career as a medical researcher and teacher, George Horner performed on piano and accordion in the “model” concentration camp for artists at Terezín (Theresienstadt) and, in the last weeks of World War II, survived the March of Death to Buchenwald.

On a fall evening in 2013, after being assisted to the piano by Ma, Dr. Horner made 70 years disappear as he banged out the morale-boosting cabaret songs of his onetime fellow inmate Karel Svenk, to the audience’s delight.

In addition to promoting the music of composers lost in the Holocaust, the foundation regularly commissions new works; one-movement pieces for chamber ensemble by Pablo Ortiz and Vit Zouhar received their United States premieres Tuesday. (Both works made their bow at the 2013 Prague Spring Festival.)

The program began and ended modestly—Ernest Bloch’s introspective Prayer (arranged for cello and string quartet) to start, and closing with the delicate Larghetto interlude from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet—and generally avoided flash and glitz throughout.

Thomas Martin’s all-strings arrangement of the Bloch piece, originally for cello and piano, had the effect of de-emphasizing the role of the solo cello, molding Ma and the Hawthorne String Quartet into a quasi-quintet much of the time. At other times, Ma’s resonant cello rose out of the texture in fervent song or pointed dialogue with first violinist Ronan Lefkowitz. The protean Ma phrased Bloch’s melody in a convincingly cantorial style, sliding discreetly from note to note.

The title of Perpetuo, the recently commissioned piece for violin, cello and harpsichord by Pablo Ortiz, had both musical and historical connotations. Not only did Mark Kroll’s harpsichord lay down a steady chatter of sixteenth notes in the perpetual-motion manner of a Bach concerto, but the much-interrupted interactions with it of Lefkowitz’s violin and Sato Knudsen’s cello seemed to suggest (in the context of this concert at least) a striving to thrive despite obstacles. The players appeared to execute Ortiz’s conception flawlessly, with the aid of a microphone that discreetly amplified the harpsichord for audibility in the large hall.

Zouhar’s Days for flute, string trio, and harpsichord was a longer piece in mixed, mostly minimalist idioms. After a prologue consisting of a single chord whose notes alternately sounded and went silent, Kroll at the harpsichord introduced a metaphor for time in the steady tick-tick of a repeated chord.

Patterns of repeated phrases accumulated and thickened over that beat, eventually developing a touch of syncopation à la Philip Glass. The beat ceased twice for moments of extremely soft pizzicato dialogue between Mark Ludwig’s viola and Knudsen’s cello, and this seemingly time-driven, day-after-day music closed on that enigmatic note. The ensemble also included violinist Si-Jing Huang and flutist Clint Foreman, the latter adding a welcome variety of non-string colors to the mix.

Ma then escorted George Horner onstage for a gentle jam on the three Svenk songs, the diminutive doctor at the piano and the cellist standing close by, plucking his instrument like a jazz bass. Horner played just one chorus of each song—a quick glimpse, like a Chopin prelude—from the upbeat yet bluesy “Terezín March” (from a camp show titled The Lost Food Card) to the bittersweet “Lullaby” (from Long Live Life), with Ma’s cello joining in on the melody.

The last song showed Svenk to be an equal opportunity social critic, apparently tweaking his would-be liberators from across the ocean in “How Come the Black Man Sits in the Back of the Car?”—a song that started like a mournful Depression-era ballad, but brightened to a jolly major-key finish.

Of course, the audience of Terezín Foundation supporters stood and roared its appreciation for Horner and his time capsule from the eponymous camp. How do you follow a moment like that? You’d have to have, say, Yo-Yo Ma walking onstage and playing a Bach suite.

And that’s exactly what happened. No cutting contest here, however. Ma brought the audience gently back to earth with the most somber of Bach’s six cello suites, No. 5 in C minor, including the searching Sarabande that the cellist has played on occasions of national mourning from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon bombing.

The suite’s Prelude is searching too, in a more agitated way, and its volatile character brought out the most subjective and psychological aspects of Ma’s playing, as his tone ranged from hall-filling resonance to the slimmest thread. His bow seemed to dart out for accents, to completely change the touch or timbre for just a note or two at high speed, whatever it took to make the music vibrate with life.

That subjective character echoed through the dance movements as well, their regular rhythms becoming a springboard for playing that felt exceptionally free, yet disciplined by the sober tone of the entire work. The now-famous Sarabande, with its single melodic line groping in the darkness, was technically a dance, too—but, in this case, a dance frozen in its tracks by a deep imperative to stop and contemplate.

Even the closing Gigue was no fast finale, but a gently skipping piece in a reserved mood and moderate tempo. In an interpretative choice perhaps tailored to the occasion, Ma took the ending forte the first time, but on the repeat he ended the movement, and the entire suite, in a vanishing pianissimo.

In the gentlest of sendoffs, string players Lefkowitz, Huang, Ludwig, and Ma joined in the Mozart Larghetto with clarinetist Thomas Martin, who played with long, sustained phrasing and a clear yet round tone that remained consistent whether high or low, loud or soft. Ma may have been sitting in as “just one of the guys,” but there was no mistaking the resonant tone that occasionally welled up and lifted the other players like surfers on a wave.

Information about the Terezín Foundation and its programs is at terezinmusic.org, or call 857-222-8262.

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