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'Houston Symphony: Kaddish - 'I Am Here'
November 27th, 2010 8:28 pm CT


Tuesday, November 23, 2010 was a particularly historic day in the music world, because in partnership with the Holocaust Museum Houston, it was the Houston Symphony and Houston Symphony Chorus single performance world premiere of the full symphony version of Kaddish "I Am Here" for full-orchestra and chorus.

From the Program Notes:

"The Kaddish Project was created to bring attention to the intentional and systematic destruction of individuals and entire cultures throughout the world. It illustrates a specific moment in history while illuminating the Holocaust as a profound human tragedy - one whose implications extend beyond the Jewish experience to concern all people everywhere."

"Written and composed by Lawrence Siegel, Kaddish is originally an hour-long oratorio for chorus, soloists and chamber orchestra, whose texts come verbatim from the testimony of Holocaust survivors. The work is intended to raise awareness and address the issue of genocide as an ongoing global crisis." "The Houston Symphony has worked with composer Lawrence Siegel over the past two years to re-score the music for full symphony and chorus. This performance is the world premiere of the full-orchestra version commissioned by the Houston Symphony."

Being that Kaddish is based in large part on the personal testimony of four Holocaust survivors who live in Houston, the Houston Symphony approached composer Lawrence Siegel about re-scoring the original chamber orchestra score for a full symphony, so that it could be performed in Houston, with the Houston Symphony and Houston Symphony Chorus. was able to speak to Mr. Siegel prior to the concert about the project:

GL: "Mr. Siegel, were there any specific challenges in re-scoring the original chamber orchestra composition for a full symphony?"

Lawrence Siegel: "Actually, I had always imagined it as a fully orchestrated work. It was more of a challenge to bring the scope of the scoring down and compress it into the original chamber orchestra format. It was very liberating and satisfying in working with the Houston Symphony to be able to finally orchestrate Kaddish into the full range composition that I had originally heard in my mind, and had always imagined."

The program began with a before-concert Prelude with composer Lawrence Siegel interviewing Houston Holocaust Survivor Naomi Warren, the content of which will appear in a future article.

Before presenting Kaddish, the concert began with a selection of two Hebrew-themed works, the first being Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes, Opus 34, which is an exuberantly cheerful piece, with light, airy, and bouncy melodic themes, building to a rousing finale.

Next the orchestra reset for cello soloist Brinton Averil Smith, who also happens to be the Houston Symphony principal cellist, who performed Kol Nidrei, Adagio on Hebrew Melodies for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 47, by Bruch. This piece began with a very somber solo cello opening, and then as the orchestra joined in it built into a grand and stately yet still melancholy hymn, intertwining with the sinuous cello which at times sounded like a rich and deeply articulated violin in the masterful hands of Mr. Smith, until the composition slowed down into a beautiful, delicate, and lingeringly sweet, high-toned ending. A wonderful, rich piece, expertly performed by both soloist and orchestra.

After the intermission came Kaddish, which enough cannot be said about. It was sweet, shocking, melancholy, uplifting, horrific, and finally, powerfully triumpant. With several Holocaust survivors present being introduced from the audience, then the grand and dramatic production with the full Houston Symphony, the full Houston Symphony Chorus, plus the four singing narrative soloists, all under the steady hand of Maestro Hans Graf, it was a large, moving, stupendous production.

It had the dramatic intensity and weight of the largest and most dramatic grand operas. But unlike opera, which is usually based on legend or mythology, this is "real." It is the "truth." It is history. And we know this because it is a first person testimonial by people still living, several of whom were present in the room that night. The first person testimonials being sung powerfully by the vocal soloists, echoed by the expansive and soaring Houston Symphony Chorus behind them.

Most of us only know the Holocaust from documentary footage, or from narrative motion pictures. But Kaddish is not a documentary. Not a fiction. It is a very personal testimony from several people who lived through it, and it is alternately poetic, angry, wistful, horrific, melancholic, and humanly philosophical. It is a story that questions faith and destiny, while recounting memories of events that were haunting, disturbing, horrible, disgusting, and shameful.

It is an unforgivable story. It is a practically unbelievable story, that human beings could ever act so cruelly...and yet it is still told in an overwhelmingly human, real, and heartfelt way.

A very powerful moment toward the end was when a littany of real non-survivor names was read en masse in overlapping fashion by the Houston Symphony Chorus. Starting with everyone, then just the women, then everyone again, then just the women again. Then fewer and fewer women's voices, until finally there was just one...and then it too, was silent.


This is also a bigger story than we usually see. It covers the saga from before WWII, and during WWII, and after WWII, and until today. We get the feeling of experiencing the entire story cycle, from now. It is a huge story.

Yes, the chorus sounded beautiful. And yes, the symphony sounded wonderful. And yes, the soloists sang powerfully and movingly. But it is all in the service of telling this horrific, and yet ultimately courageous and heroic story. In this respect the star of the show must be Lawrence Siegel and his amazing, classically oratorial, symphonic, compositional achievement. And yet even Mr. Siegel does not do this for himself. He does it for the Holocaust survivors, and for all the people who did not survive the Holocaust. And to tell this horrible story, in the most artistically beautiful way possible, so that people can understand what happened. He succeeded admirably. Plus he had a lot of very talented help along the way, and in this amazing performance. It is an unquestioned triumph. And extremely emotional to sit through.

How does one feel good after seeing and hearing a performance like this? Because ultimately it is a story of triumph.

The best feeling that can be taken away from this story, and this extraordinary historical musical event, is that:

...the evil criminals,

The Survivors Won.

And Bravo! to them...

Siegel: Kaddish World Premier
By WES BLOMSTER, American Record Review

A strong sense of mission contributed to the success of Lawrence Siegel's Kaddish, an hour-long work for chorus and orchestra given its world premier by Philip Brunelle's VocalEssence on November 15 in Mann Concert hall on University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.

Although Kaddish is about the Holocaust, the darkest chapter of 20th Century history, Siegel calls the work "a mourner's celebration of life" because the cycle of 15 songs in three parts looks beyond the realm of death to the affirmative posture of those who survived the Nazi camps.

The authenticity of the score, superbly performed by a chorus of 150 and an extended chamber ensemble with full percussion, comes from the texts that Siegel fashioned largely from interviews with people once held prisoner in Auschwitz and other sites of inhuman terror. Through the primacy of text, Kaddish engages its audience by bringing them face to face with a tragedy all too easily forgotten as the last survivors who bear witness to it are dying off.

Kaddish opens with a gentle, lyric 'World Before', a setting of a Yiddish folksong, while 'Holocaust', the second section, has harshness that borders on dissonance. In 'Auschwitz', the darkest section, males of the choir echo the rhythm of a locomotive as they portray arrival in the camp. Most original is Litany that opens 'Tiklun Olam' (The repair the World), the final third of the score, where choir members speak victims' names from Yad Vashem archives. Their voices grow in volume and then give way to a single speaker.

"I mean to grab you by the heart and shake you up", Siegel says about Kaddish. The work did precisely that. Founding music director Philip Brunelle and VocalEssence made almost every word understandable without reference to the libretto printed in the program. The ensemble is obviously a shining jewel in the Twin Cities' musical crown.

The premier was made poignant by the presence of Naomi Warren, an 89-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, whose words both open and close Kaddish. Siegel speaks of his "verbatim" approach to the score, which he defines as "shaping songs out of the actual speech of ordinary people". It brings "you-are-there" immediacy to the story. At the dress rehearsal Warren told the musicians of her 2003 return to Auschwitz, which enabled her to say "Hineni! I am here!"

'Kaddish' a compelling take on tragedy

A new choral work by Lawrence Siegel, based on accounts of Holocaust survivors, connects with lyrical simplicity.

By WILLIAM RANDALL BEARD, Special to the Star Tribune

The idea of art with a message can frequently be oxymoronic. Too often, the message eclipses the art. That was my fear going into VocalEssence's world premiere of "Kaddish" by Lawrence Siegel.

But "Kaddish" had a gravitas and an emotional immediacy that made even the familiar story of the Holocaust fresh and compelling.

Siegel's texts, based on accounts of Holocaust survivors, were fascinating. In the first section, "The World Before," he set the Holocaust in a social context that made the ensuing tragedy all the more horrifying.

In dealing with the Holocaust itself, Siegel did not overreach himself. He found the universal tragedy in the small details of individual lives. But then, in the third part, he moved beyond those events to explore their consequences for the survivors in the decades since.

This was not intellectually challenging nor demanding music. But in its lyrical simplicity, it created an emotional connection to the story. That said, Siegel's musical vocabulary was not quite able to truly convey the sense of atrocity.

Of the soloists, bass-baritone James Bohn made the strongest impact, with characterful singing that created a number of vivid vignettes. Soprano Maria Jette, in the story of a survivor who returned to Auschwitz with her family, used her soaring soprano to convey the exultation of survival. Tenor Anders Eckman, a member of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, was a last-minute replacement, but proved himself to be very much in their league.

The concert opened with excerpts of Bernstein's "Mass," in a new "authorized concert edition." This presented the large-scale work in a more manageable arrangement. It also had the advantage of tempering some of the work's excesses.

Under Philip Brunelle's direction, this became a spiritual journey, an exploration of faith through a character struggling with his own. He molded Bernstein's mélange of musical styles into a coherent whole.

Tenor Paul Garth Pruitt, another late replacement, had a strong, bright instrument and put forth a herculean effort in the difficult role. With more rehearsal, he probably would have developed a more nuanced and effective characterization.

Jette took over some of his music. She was exquisite in "A Simple Song" and ethereal in "The Lord's Prayer." More than just beautifully vocalized, they were deeply felt, as if she were truly praying her songs.

The Minnesota Orchestra will be doing the full-length "Mass" in January, but it will be hard-pressed to exceed the VocalEssence Chorus' sublime performance.

William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis writer.

Holocaust work blends solemnity, resilient joy
By David Hawley, Special to the Pioneer Press

Of all the expectations for a musical work about the Holocaust, triumphant joy may not be one of them. That's especially true when the title is "Kaddish," which refers to the Jewish rituals of mourning.

But joy of a kind born in resiliency emerges like a glow of white light in the final section of Lawrence Siegel's oratorio - starting with a hymnlike choral setting of the words, "Nothing is as whole as a heart which has been broken," and rising to exaltation: "I am here! I survived, and look who is with me." After what has gone before, the impact of the conclusion is thrilling.

"Kaddish," written in oratorio style for chorus, soloists and small orchestra, received its world premiere Saturday in a single concert by VocalEssence, the 40-year-old ensemble founded and conducted by Philip Brunelle that doggedly champions new or less-known vocal music. The performance was recorded and likely will find its way to a compact disc.

The hourlong work is theatrical and accessible. Siegel, a New Hampshire-based composer, is an advocate of "verbatim" librettos. The technique for this work involved taking actual words of survivors and melding them with other sources, both biblical and poetic, including the traditional Kaddish prayer.

Needless to say, the verbatim technique adds dramatic weight. The trade-off, especially in the choral sections, is the necessity of using a lot of thick-textured homophonic singing to project the text. Thankfully, it doesn't get monotonous, thanks to theatrical narrative of contrasting styles.

Divided into three major sections, the piece begins with reflections on life in Jewish communities before the Holocaust, written generally in a style that uses conventional harmonies, lyricism and hints of folk and klezmer melodies.

The harmonies become dissonant and angular in the middle section, which includes accounts of Auschwitz, before moving to the momentous and triumphant conclusion with four-square hymns and a huge, almost Handelian final chorus. The ending is preceded by perhaps the most dramatic moment in the performance: A stark recitative involving the spoken names of Holocaust victims, starting with a single voice and rising to a heart-breaking cacophony of voices.

On Saturday, the soloists – including eternal soprano Maria Jette, mezzo Krista J. Palmquist, tenor Anders Eckman and bass-baritone James Bohn – were all admirable, but the weight of the performance fell to Eckman, whose singing had a majestic quality that also was profoundly direct.

Saturday's performance opened with a concert version of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" – another salvo in a 90th-birthday celebration that includes a big festival next year by the Minnesota Orchestra. In some ways, "Mass" was an unfortunate billing, because Bernstein's wry, humanistic take on the traditional liturgical vehicle came off as shallow when followed by "Kaddish." It's a better work than that.

Moreover, the performance was a little shaky. Tenor Paul Garth Pruitt was called in at the last minute when the original soloist, Jason Collins, had to withdraw because of a family emergency. (Eckman substituted admirably for Collins in "Kaddish.") Pruitt struggled frequently with the part, though the performance opened with a lovely solo by Jette, and it also was apparent that some of the concert piece had to be jettisoned at the last minute.

In all, however, the concert was a very big moment in the vocal music scene for this year. It's a pity that it was only performed once.

Kaddish Project  •  Tricinium Limited
191 Washington Street  •  Keene, New Hampshire 03431  •  603-355-8353