On Tuesday, Nov. 9, the world premier of the Tree of Life Cantata by Jacob Lindy was performed online by the ensemble concert:nova, in a program that also included the String Quartet No. 2 by Pavel Haas. This event was part of the year-long celebration of the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial.

The premier of the cantata was  approximately two weeks after the third anniversary of the event it commemorates — the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018; it was also the eighty-third anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom in German-controlled territory (Germany and Austria) on November 9-10, 1938. 

Sarah Weiss, CEO of the Holocaust & Humanity Center, introduced the historical context of Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass — also called the November pogrom: thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were destroyed and looted, an estimated thousand synagogues were burned and destroyed, thirty thousand Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, and ninety-one were murdered. Weiss noted this pogrom as the herald of six and a half years of violence, destruction, and ultimately genocide against the Jewish people, and noted that even the Nazis were amazed by the lack of response from the Western world after a brief initial reaction.

Ted Nelson, Producing Artistic Director of concert:nova introduced the historical context of the Tree of Life shooting: a lone gunman entered the synagogue on a Saturday morning and attacked the congregations as they worshipped, killing eleven people and wounding six. It was the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in the history of the United States. He spoke again after the cantata about the emotional power of music, and about the choice of the companion piece in this concert.

The final speaker before the premier of the cantata and the first speaker after it was the composer, Jacob Lindy. Although he had had an interest in musical composition as a child, he had not pursued it as an adult — he became a psychiatrist — until moved by the Tree of Life shooting. He was guided in this composition by Gonçalo Lorenço, who orchestrated the work; they spent more than a year producing successive drafts of increasing musical sophistication. Lindy had initially written a prose poem about the shooting, but he wanted to compose music to accompany it, saying that “words help, words offer comfort, words offer insight, words offer reality, but words don’t get to the soul, and I think music does.”

The cantata consists of segments of the prose poem interspersed with music. The opening and closing of the poem described the creation of the world, emphasizing the violence of the geological processes of the Earth on which human life is lived. The sections between those bookends describe the quotidian Shabbat activities of the worshippers in the moments before their deaths — hurrying to services so as not to be late; preparing to deliver bagels and coffee to the congregations that worshipped in the Tree of Life building in anticipation of the end of the services; hearing the first shots, and either hiding, or, as a former military doctor, going toward them to try to help — and the actions of the shooter, preparing for this planned attack and then carrying it out. The victims are named only by their first names; only the name of the perpetrator is given in full. The text announces that this was no Kristallnacht, no herald of massive antisemitism to follow — that Pittsburgh rallied, the country rallied, and “the Tree of Life Bore fruit.” The narration of events ends with the funerals and Kaddish. The music provides mood and commentary for the events narrated; each victim’s musical introduction begins lightheartedly but becomes increasingly dark in tone.

Steven J. Cahn, Professor of Music Theory at University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, introduced Haas (1899-1944), the composer of the second work played. Born in what was then Czechoslovakia, he was a star pupil of Leoš Janáček. His style was influenced not only by his teacher, but also by Stravinsky, jazz, and the folk styles of Czech and Jewish music. Cahn cited Haas’ ability to induce synesthesia: to give a musical impression of a scene. When the Western powers attempted to appease Hitler by permitting the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia by Germany in 1938 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Haas fell into the hands of the Nazis. He divorced his non-Jewish wife in order to save her and their daughter, lost his livelihood when the Jewish school at which he taught was closed, and was deported first to Theresienstadt where he survived for three years and then to Auschwitz where he was murdered. 

Nelson concluded the introduction to the second selection with the observation that art is created in a particular context, and can contribute to a broader understanding of difficult events. Haas’ String Quartet No. 2, premiered in 1925, evokes a summer outing to a mountain resort, as the titles of the movements reveal: Landscape; Coach, Coachman and Horse; The Moon and I…; Wild Night. It is a tantalizing piece of music that can only raise the question of what else its composer might have written if his life had not been cut short.

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