Raisins and Almonds for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

A preview by Betsy Schwarm

Russian army at gates of Auschwitz, 1945

On January 27, 1945, in the closing months of World War II, the Russian Red Army reached the gates of Auschwitz, subsequently liberating the camp.  With the 75th anniversary of that occasion rapidly approaching, worldwide commemorations of the event are planned, especially as, in 2005, the UN declared January 27 to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Denver shall not be remiss.

One Denver-area celebration, featuring the Colorado Hebrew Chorale and its adjunct women’s chorus Kol Nashim, will take place one day before the official date.  Ambitiously, the ensembles’ Raisins and Almonds Gala, the evening of Sunday, January 26, will include both the premiere of a specially commissioned work by a Colorado composer and a celebration of the musical works of a local couple of wide reputation, as well as sing-along opportunities.

Kol Nashim

The local couple is Osi and Selma Sladek.  Osi is a child survivor of the Holocaust who came to the future Israel after the war and soon developed a following for his popular songs.  One of those, The Paratroopers, written for the 1956 Sinai campaign, will be included on the program.  As for Selma, she is a Denver native of literary talent.  The two met in California; having since made their home in Denver, they collaborate on songs, he providing music and she lyrics.  Several of these will also appear on the program.  Carol Kozak Ward, founder and conductor of the Colorado Hebrew Chorale, says she is delighted to have the opportunity to honor their achievements with the program.  At the Sladek’s request, the program is more about their music than about themselves, but, after all, where would the music be without them?

Osi and Selma Sladek

The Sladeks’ music on the Raisins and Almonds program will be pre-existing works, some familiar to some audience members.  Also featured will be music of Gerald Cohen, who some readers will recall as composer of the opera Steal a Pencil for Me, which Opera Colorado premiered in the winter of 2018.  For the third year running, Cantor Asa Fradkin of the Beth El congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, will perform at Raisins and Almonds, this time bringing his youth choir, the Gesher Chorale. 

As for newly commissioned music, this will be Fort Collins composer David Wohl’s The Valley Awakens.  Wohl was invited by Leah Peer, conductor of Kol Nashim, to write something for the ensemble that would set texts both in English and in literary Hebrew.  That Wohl, whose career has largely been focused on film and theater music, was familiar with Hebrew was, he says, “a plus.”  For a text, the choice fell to Israeli writer/translator Joanna Chen (the ‘ch’ pronounced as in Bach).  The poem blends a widely known Hebrew verse, “Etz Chayim Hi” (It is a Tree of Life) with English lines relating to that tree (the terebinth), its intertwined branches and roots helping to hold the earth together.  In Wohl’s setting, vocal lines become as interwoven as the branches themselves.

Cantor Asa Fradkin

When his newly-commissioned score was still a work-in-progress, Wohl travelled to Denver for a retreat with Peer and the singers of Kol Nashim.   Peer describes the ensemble as “a self-selecting community choir,” that is, not auditioned and not necessarily professionally trained.  Lest some observers view those facts as limiting to musical finesse, let it be noted that even Brahms found it worth his time to conduct community choirs, the better to get the masses involved in performing music.  Peer observes that what Kol Nashim may lack in conservatory training, it makes up in enthusiasm – as long as both challenges and rewards are within the singers’ reach:  “one or two challenges at a time are about enough,” she quips.

David Wohl

In Wohl’s words, the challenges here include atypical harmonies, as well as “rhythmic shifts and changing meters,” and even a touch of improvisation.   All of that, he says, arises from the text itself, and “is intended to evoke the mystery, ambiguity, and subsequent ‘awakening’ of the morning light in the valley.  The effect is an analogy to the awakening of the human soul to greater purpose and empowerment.”  How better to express the text’s imagery of a society working together toward “a new day” and “a new way”?

Having spent not just that single retreat, but actually several years, becoming familiar with Kol Nashim, Wohl attests that he “wanted to convey my confidence in their ability to rise to the new challenges of this new work.”  He adds, “I felt it was important to convey to the choir both my specific intentions (and standards) and my complete trust in them… In the course of the rehearsal, we happily found moments for the music to breathe more and to take its time, as well as other places to press forward with urgency and purpose.”  For her part, Peer notes that she was pleased to find “that there’s actually some flexibility within the written rhythms.”

Raisins and Almonds:  a Tu B’Shvat Celebration will be held Sunday, January 26, at BMH-MJ congregation, 560 South Monaco Parkway, Denver 80224.  Festivities begin at 630pm with a VIP reception, followed by the concert itself at 715pm, then, at 815pm, an Israeli-style Shira B’Tzibur sing-along, followed by dessert.  Osi Sladek has led many such gatherings, as far back as during his years in Israel, and one can be sure that a rollicking time will be had by all.

For tickets, visit https://www.coloradohebrewchorale.org/events-2/raisinsandalmonds/

More information about composer David Wohl and his works can be found here:  https://www.davidwohlmusic.com/?v=7516fd43adaa

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