Remembering the gay victims of the Nazis

Ginell is a freelance writer.

Not only is it no longer unusual to encounter Holocaust-inspired projects in the concert hall and opera house, the subject may well be inexhaustible. Seattle even has its own performance group, Music of Remembrance, dedicated to this field.

The organization unearths old works from the period, commissions new ones, records as much as it can (four CDs are out) and, perhaps most significant, doesn't confine itself to any one victimized group's experience.

In what was apparently its first outing beyond the Seattle area, Music of Remembrance brought Jake Heggie's "For a Look or a Touch" (a California premiere about gay victims of the Nazis) to the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage on Thursday night.

In this piece, Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer -- who together illuminated the life of Francis Poulenc so imaginatively in "Friendly Persuasions" -- continue to push the dramatic potential of the song cycle in the 21st century.

Interweaving filmed testimony by gay Holocaust survivor Gad Beck and the journal of his Nazi-murdered lover, Manfred Lewin, Heggie and Scheer have the aged Gad of today encounter the ghost of young Manfred in a dream.

The piece is about 33 minutes long, written for a compact ensemble of singer (baritone Morgan Smith), speaker (actor-director John Hall) and a flute, clarinet and piano trio. Again Heggie displayed his knack for composing honest, heartfelt, non-doctrinaire music without resorting to easy sentimental manipulation -- the score swelling with genuine emotion when Gad recognizes Manfred, the chamber group turning itself into a riffing Broadway-flavored jazz band when asked to evoke the Berlin of the men's youth.

Relatively little has been done to dramatize the plight of homosexuals in the Third Reich -- and I can imagine this piece opening up a floodgate of further attempts.

But more to the point, you don't have to be gay to be affected by the universal emotions that this work movingly addresses.

Elsewhere in the program, four string players fervently and abrasively tackled the caustic dances within Five Pieces for String Quartet by Erwin Schulhoff -- the most interesting figure among the composers who died in Nazi camps. Violinist Leonid Keylin and pianist and Music of Remembrance founder Mina Miller offered the sole surviving piece of Robert Dauber -- a brief Serenata that smacked of Spain and the salon -- and Laura DeLuca poured on the klezmer clarinet in "Zek Yiddishe Lider un Tantz" from Betty Olivero's "The Golem."

The instruments sounded distant and localized from Row F on the Broad's ground floor, but they projected better into the balcony during Heggie's piece.


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