Finding identity through chamber music

Two chamber groups, The Hawthorne Quartet and Ensemble Nordlys, share cultural identities during performances at Syracuse University

Syracuse University hosted two extraordinary journeys through the world of chamber music on Nov. 13, with performances from Boston’s Hawthorne String Quartet and Ensemble Nordlys from Denmark.  The programs for each of these concerts, though the music could not have been more different, illustrated how classical music is continually used to preserve cultural identity.

The morning began as members of the Hawthorne Quartet coached master classes for music students in Crouse College.  Boston Symphony Orchestra violinists Ronan Lefkowitz and Si-Jing Huang, violist Mark Ludwig, and cellist Sato Knudsen gave students advice on technique, performance, and musical interpretation as the rest of the class listened, eager to take advantage of such a rare opportunity.

The Hawthorne Quartet, named for the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, then prepared for their own program entitled “Music from Terezín” in Hendrick’s Chapel as part of the Malmgren Concert Series.  The Quartet, currently the Quartet-In-Residence at Boston College, has been praised for performing the works of composers that were persecuted during the Holocaust.  Last week’s program featured the works of composers that were incarcerated in one particular concentration camp in the Czech Republic, called Terezín.

Violist Ludwig, director of the non-profit Terezín Chamber Music Foundation, gave a pre-concert lecture to prepare the audience (and it was quite a large audience at that) for music that was not necessarily meant to lament the poor conditions of the Terezín ghetto, but to inspire a sense of community and a reason to live.

“Music is a great healer,” Ludwig said, “but there’s a flipside.  Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death, spiritual and mental survival.”

As Ludwig flipped through a slideshow of photos and documents showing the brutality of the concentration camp, he urged the audience to put themselves in the shoes of the Jews who were not allowed to own instruments or even have professions.

Musicians, he said, have a personal bond with their instrument; it’s their voice.  That’s why, when prisoners were told that they should only bring what they could carry as they were transported to Terezín, some musicians went to great lengths to smuggle their instruments into the camps.  Ludwig told the story of one cellist who chopped up his instrument, hid the splinters of wood inside the lining of his coat, and painstakingly glued the cello back together when he arrived at the camp.

Another chilling photo showed a ring of musicians playing around a lone prisoner as he was about to be beaten to death by Nazi guards.  The occurrence was common and known as the “Tango of Death.”

“Imagine what that does to you in terms of your relationship with music,” Ludwig said.

Inside Terezín, where people would forfeit food rations to see a chamber music concert, music and entertainment became a way to form a community and make a statement about the dire situation of the prisoners that crowed the ghetto.  “These were great voices trying to hold on to their musical traditions, dignity and community,” Ludwig said.

The program performed by the Hawthorne Quartet led the audience through a chilling journey of the music that emerged from Terezín.  The concert commenced with Beethoven’s Quartet in G, Op. 18, No. 2 as a representation of music that the Jews would have associated with freedom.  The music by Germany’s champion composer came to mean something quite different when it was heard while experiencing the horrific conditions under Hitler’s oppressive regime.

The second half of the program consisted of music by several composers who were imprisoned in Terezín – Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann.  Klein’s Fugue for String Quartet, written in 1943, was hidden by the composer’s sister in a dresser drawer and left undiscovered until 1991.  The music in this portion of the concert was an eerie reminder that even the most desperate situations can yield grace, vigor, and even beauty.

As the Hawthorne Quartet packed up their instruments, Ensemble Nordlys (“The Northern Lights Ensemble”) was just warming up.  The chamber group, consisting of violinist Christine Pryn, cellist Øystein Sonstad, clarinetist Viktor Wennezz, and pianist Kristoffer Hyldig, was finishing off their first tour to the United States before heading back to Denmark the next day.  The ensemble had recently given a concert at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall before stopping in Syracuse for this final performance.    

The unique instrumentation of this ensemble allowed for an interesting and eclectic mix of works and instrumental combinations.  Highlights included a piece commissioned especially for Ensemble Nordlys by Setnor School of Music’s composer-in-residence Andrew Waggoner.  The piece entitled One Kindness was inspired by an edition of NPR’s StoryCorps series in which a woman receives one act of kindness from a stranger that allows her to cope with the loss of her brother who passed away from AIDS.

Following the intermission, the ensemble performed a piece that had never been performed in the United States before.  It was a work by Bent Sørenson called Mondnacht from Schattenlinien and was specially arranged for Ensemble Nordlys.  The piece was full of ethereal orbs of color and bursts of furious passion.  The final piece on the program, Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello and piano by Paul Hindemith, was also a treat since the work is hardly ever performed.

The members of Ensemble Nordlys remained at the college to teach master classes to music students after the concert.  Before the quartet departed for the night, cellist Sonstad insisted that the acoustics in Setnor Auditorium were better than in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall.

Both the Hawthorne Quartet and Ensemble Nordlys presented views that chamber music could be used to preserve a national identity.  The Hawthorne Quartet showed how Jews in concentration camps used music to retain a sense of community while the Ensemble Nordlys displayed pride for their home country of Denmark as they toured the United States for the first time.  This was music that told a story, inspired community, and sounded pretty darn good, too.   

Photos: Leah Rankin 

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