A program at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC, Tuesday night, was first and foremost a tribute to the human spirit under the most difficult conditions imaginable.
It was a survey of music by four composers who were trapped in the concentration camp in Theresienstadt (Terezin), Czechoslovakia, awaiting transit to the Nazi death camps.
Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa (both 1899-1944) and Gideon Klein (1919-1945) were permitted to compose and have their work performed, serving both as morale boosters for their people and a propaganda bonanza for the Nazis.
The brief song cycles by Ullmann, Haas and Krasa deal with escapism, homesickness, or in Ullmann’s “Immer inmitten,” an outright cry of pain.
While dissonant and terse in language overall, Ullmann’s “Three Songs on Texts by Friedrich Holderlin,” and Klein’s compact Piano Sonata often use urbane harmonies that speak of the cabaret, or perhaps even Gershwin.
Haas’ “Four Songs to Texts of Chinese Poetry” has repetitive folk-influenced patterns that echo Janacek, while Ullmann’s Sonata No. 6 rambles in a disjointed stream of consciousness. Indeed, one trait all four composers understandably share is a wandering attention span; the music often lacks coherent shape, drifting where it should gather momentum.
Nevertheless, one could admire the obviously emotional, dedicated performances from mezzo-soprano Emilie Berendsen and bass Leon Lishner--both of whom sounded larger than life in this small room--and the formidable yet self-effacing pianist David Bloch.