Music as a Moral Compass

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I spend about 46 weeks of the year preparing for six weeks of music around the world. Berkshire Choral International choristers have been performing the standard repertoire for 35 seasons now. Most of the concerts I’ve heard in eight seasons have been wonderful, but only a few stand out as illustrations of how music and lyrics can reset our moral compasses and make a lasting impression on singers, conductor, and audience alike.

stephen paulus

Stephen Paulus

Such was the oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn by the late Stephen Paulus (composer) and Michael Dennis Browne (librettist), performed August 6 under the baton of Minneapolis-based Kathy Saltzman Romey. She has been a passionate advocate for the work, and I believe that everyone who sang it with her will testify that her passion is not misplaced.

Michael Dennis Browne

Michael Dennis Browne

To Be Certain of the Dawn, which premiered in Minneapolis in 2005, started with the Reverend Michael O’Connell of the Basilica of Saint Mary in that city. The Basilica commissioned the piece as a memorial gift to Temple Israel synagogue on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. The Second Vatican Council released that landmark declaration to call for Christian repentance of anti-Semitism and to foster dialog between Jews and Christians.

vishniacWritten in three parts, To Be Certain of the Dawn opens with the blowing of the shofar and the traditional prayer, Sh’ma Israel, followed by the chorus singing in effect the intent of the Nostra Aetate. The second part of the composition, called “Remembrance,” is a collection of songs and blessings whose lyrics were inspired by photographs taken by Roman Vishniac of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust while storm clouds were looming. This section ends with the haunting “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” recalling both the children’s memorial at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem and the ages-old image of “God with us” as a flame.

In the final part, “Visions,” Mr. Browne wrote in 2008, “. . . we hear several themes in layers: Jews and Christians desiring to walk together ‘in the country of justice’ (wherever that may be found); B’Tselem Elohim, the Image of God, which suggests that the human face reflects the invisible face of God in the human world; the voices of the children. . . the voices of survivors; the return of the theme ‘You should love your neighbour as yourself’, and the sounding of the shofar, with which we began.”

During the performance, slides of some of Mr. Vishniac’s photographs of children were screened. For me, the moment of tears came as soloist Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek sang “I don’t want to live in a world without children” as a picture of several smiling children appeared. One had to wonder how many of them survived the Holocaust.

Unbeknownst to staff at the time, a child survivor of the Holocaust was in the audience. A friend of the survivor wrote me that the gentleman, now 82, was a hidden child in Belgium. He and his brother were taken in by a Christian family with 12 children of their own. He and his brother said good-bye to their parents not knowing they would never see them again.

“(He) does not make a display of his story,” the friend wrote. “He said that he seldom attends events like last night. We were not aware ahead of time of what the evening held in store, except for the Bernstein.

“ ‘WEAR YOUR STARS!’

“He was one of those little boys.

“(He) arrived in the USA with 2 garments that had stars attached, both now donated to museums.

“You never know the power and impact of music, or the effects of weeks of hard work and preparation.

“Last night you made an impact on one old man who had lost everything and almost everyone who was dear to him in the Holocaust.”

“We honored them tonight.”

I was not the only person there seeing the relevance of the piece to the political climate in this country and the violent rhetoric of the Republican candidate.

I was not the only one re-dedicating myself to the command to love my neighbor as myself regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, gender identity and sexual preference.

And I am sure I was not the only one re-orienting myself to the struggle for peace and justice for all.

Read more about Roman Vishniac and view the US Holocaust Museum’s collection at https://www.ushmm.org/research/research-in-collections/overview/photo-archives/vishniac-collection

 

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Thoughts on the DNC

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What a gorgeous tapestry the Democratic National Convention presented to the world!

Black, brown, and white faces, hijabs and turbans and flag-adorned straw hats, young people and old people, almost like Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Golden Rule” painting.

golden ruleWhat America is. What America needs to be.

Hearing Anastasia Somoza and Gabby Giffords and the mothers of young men and women killed by police or vigilantes, survivor of the Charleston massacre: profiles in courage, all.

Michelle Obama: dignified, articulate, on point always, passionate.

Joe Biden, who knows too well what loss and grief are, but always optimistic, decent, and on fire this week with hope and encouragement.

Elizabeth Warren, tearing DT a new one in the most wholesome, goshdarnit way, my own senator who I am so glad will continue to serve us in the Senate.

Bernie Sanders, my first choice, making it clear to his supporters that they must not sit out this election; the stakes are too high.

Sarah Silverman, oh my goodness, Sarah, I love you!

And of course, our beloved President, who I really do wish could serve a third term. He will be so missed, and I’ve no doubt that the annals of history will mark his tenure as our finest hour.

Why the feelings of unease, then? Why the nervousness listening to Michael Kelly and Leon Panetta and General Allen go on and on about our military prowess and American exceptionalism?

Yes, I know that the strategy was to show the country that Hillary Clinton will be as hawkish as Donald Trump. But I already knew that. That was why she wasn’t my first choice.

Brian Williams, how dare you criticize the people chanting “No more war”? “Sadly,” you said, referring to them as hecklers, they couldn’t be quiet. You, who lied about being under fire when you have never been under fire, except from your NBC bosses. How hypocritical can you get, when the theme of that convention was supposed to be that EVERYONE is welcome in the Democratic tent?

Yes, history was made at the Democratic National Convention this week, and I was able to watch it without yelling any epithets at the television as I had the week before. I will vote the Democratic ticket no matter what. But I pray, I really pray, that the philosophies expressed to the ideals of justice for all, liberty for all, the pursuit of happiness for all were not just lip service, and that the lip service to military power and aggressiveness were not the real philosophies that will be given priority.