Musical event celebrates little known story of Jewish rescue

Musical event celebrates little known story of Jewish rescue

A largely unknown and uplifting event in the dark history of the Holocaust will be told through a concert that combines the musical forces of a full orchestra, a choir from Bulgaria, choirs from around the U.S. and soloists. Songs of Life Festival: A Melancholy Beauty, being performed for the first time in South Carolina after successful performances in New York, Washington D.C. and Boston, recounts how Bulgaria’s 49,000 Jews were saved from the Nazis by ordinary citizens, government and church officials. 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the rescue.

The performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Nov. 2 at the Charleston Music Hall and 7 p.m., Nov. 3, at the Koger Center for the Arts in Columbia.

Songs of Life will be performed by the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, augmented by Bulgarian folk instruments, the Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble of Bulgaria, University of Florida Chamber Choir, the Bach Festival Youth Choir, Young Sandlapper Singers, the Limestone College and Community Chorus and several professional soloists. The centerpiece is A Melancholy Beauty, a new oratorio that had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and has been performed at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York and the Wang Center in Boston.

A Melancholy Beauty is a creation of Varna International, a South Carolina-based organization that for 15 years has presented music festivals throughout Europe. The organization is headed by husband and wife team Kalin Tchonev, a native of Bulgaria, and Sharon Tchoneva, a native of Israel. Sharon Tchoneva’s Bulgarian grandparents were saved during the rescue.

This is the first time the work has been presented in South Carolina.

“We felt it was important to stage the production this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the rescue, and it seemed appropriate to bring it ‘home,’” Sharon Tchonev said.

The idea for A Melancholy Beauty came to Kalin Tchonev while he was attending a performance of the musical Mama Mia in Berlin. Seated nearby was a group of people with mental disabilities, and he began reflecting on the fate of such people in Nazi Germany and how Bulgarians Jews had been saved from the death camps – including his wife’s family.

“I realized that if it were not for the miraculous rescue, I would not have my wife and son today,” Kalin Tchonev said. “We wanted to pay tribute to the brave people who stood up – ordinary people who arose to defy evil.”

They did so by commissioning composer Georgi Andreev and librettists Scot Cairns and Aryeh Finklestein to create A Melancholy Beauty.

Andreev, chief conductor of the State Folklore Ensemble, has written many works for chamber orchestra and piano and arranged 400 Bulgarian traditional songs. Cairns’ poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review and The New Republic, and he is the author of six poetry collections. Finklestein, cantor at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Massachusetts, has written the libretti for three oratorios.

A Melancholy Beauty combines classical choral-orchestral music with Bulgarian musical influences and traditional instruments such as the gadulka (a type of lute) and kaval (flute). The soloists will perform the roles of several key players in the drama including King Boris, the head of the Orthodox Church; a pro-Nazi commissar; his private secretary, who warned the Jews; and a political leader who opposed the deportation.

The performance will be conducted by Donald Portnoy, music director of the USC Symphony Orchestra.

“Approaching Maestro Portnoy was a natural decision for us, as we always seek to work with a good local orchestra, and Kalin holds master’s degrees from the USC School of Music and was acquainted with Maestro Portnoy,” explained Sharon Tchonev. “He immediately embraced the idea.”

The South Carolina productions will open with a performance by the National Folklore Ensemble. The Optimists, a film about the rescue, will be shown as well. The movie won First Prize at the Jerusalem International Film Festival for Documenting the Jewish Experience and won an honorable mention award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

“Because the story isn’t widely known, we wanted to provide the audience with an understanding of the history that inspired A Melancholy Beauty,” said Sharon Tchonev. “We can’t think of a better way than screening the 20-minute version of this beautiful and deeply moving film told from a personal perspective of what happened to the filmmaker’s family.”

For more information, visit the Songs of Life website.

Via: Songs of Life Festival


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