SCARSDALE, N.Y. For Scarsdale composer Gerald Cohen , his new work, "Playing for Our Lives," has a special significance.
"This piece is close to my heart in many different ways," said Cohen, Shaarei Tikvah's cantor the past 25 years. "Both my parents, while not directly Holocaust survivors, were both refugees. My mother grew up in Germany during Hitler's reign and left Germany in 1938. My father left Poland" and lost family members, he said. "I've never written any music that specifically spoke to that. So when the Cassatt group approached me to write this, it really resonated with me."
"Playing for Our Lives," commissioned by the Cassatt String Quartet and premiered by them in February at Symphony Space in New York City, is based on the musical life of the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. At Terezin, there were many excellent performers and several excellent composers, and the Nazis, for propaganda purposes, allowed a certain amount of artistic activity to take place.
The piece will be performed when the Cassatt String Quartet is featured in concert at Shaarei Tikvah, 46 Fox Meadow Road in Scarsdale. The synagogue's annual concert, scheduled for 3 p.m. April 22, also is Shaarei Tikvah's observance of Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Day.
At Terezin, Cohen said, making art music as well as visual arts "enabled them to stay alive and hopeful at a terrible time. This piece is really reflecting that. It enabled them to transcend what was going on.
"The piece weaves together various significant musical elements of the camp a poignant Yiddish folk song; a melody from the children's opera "Brundibar;" dramatic sections of Verdi's 'Requiem' to create a memorial to the musical and emotional life of Terezin."
Cohen's music has been commissioned by several ensembles, including the Verdehr Trio, the Grneta Ensemble, the Franciscan String Quartet, Chesapeake Chamber Music, the Wave Hill Trio and the New York Virtuoso Singers. His two operas: "Sarah and Hagar" and "Seed," have been performed in concert. He is working on a third opera, one with a Holocaust connection.
"There's a couple in our congregation he's 100 and she's 90 who met in one of the camps in Holland. He was married at the time, she had a boyfriend. It's all very operatic. They survived and got together."
Cohen is on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He received music degrees from Yale and Columbia universities.
At its April concert, the Cassatt Quartet also will perform a composition written at Terezin by Viktor Ullmann, one of the most prominent musicians at the camp, as well as earlier works from the Czech heritage of string quartet literature. Jack and Ina Polak, Dutch Holocaust survivors whose story was featured in the film "Steal a Pencil for Me," will discuss their experiences at Westerbork, a camp in Holland similar in many ways to Terezin in that it had a thriving cultural life in the midst of the fears of being transported to Poland. There also will be readings in memory of those who died in during the period of the Holocaust.
The concert is open to the public, with no tickets required. A $20 suggested donation will be welcomed at the door; part of the proceeds will go to the Anne Frank Center in New York City.
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