PICTURED: The Los Robles Children’s Choir will perform Brundibár during New West Symphony’s Dreams concert. Photo submitted

 by Emily Dodi

New West Symphony (NWS) presents Duet of Remembrance, a two-concert package dedicated to the remembrance of the Holocaust and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps.

“Everyone is part of the continuation of the story. It’s really important,” says Music Director Michael Christie. “It’s amazing, the number of direct survivors and family of survivors who live in Ventura. The history of people’s experiences just within our own community is so moving. We are hoping we can pay some small homage to the experiences that ripple through the generations.”

The first concert, entitled Dreams, takes place at the Fred Kavli Theatre at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Feb. 29, and at Rancho Campana Performing Arts Center in Camarillo on Sunday, March 1. The program includes the children’s opera Brundibár, performed by Los Robles Children’s Choir, and Felix Mendelssohn’s *A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring the California Lutheran University Choir, Women’s Chorale and Areté Vocal Ensemble, with actors Brett Elliott and Jane Longenecker of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company.

The children’s opera Brundibár, written by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása, with an original libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, tells the story of the children of a small village who rise up against a treacherous bully. The simplicity of the story, and the triumph over adversity it celebrates, belies the opera’s dark and complicated history.

Brundibár was originally written in 1938 for a government competition. The competition would ultimately be canceled, but the opera went on to be performed in 1942 by children at the Jewish Orphanage on Belgicka Street in Prague. By 1943, Krása and nearly all of the children from the orphanage (along with many others) were imprisoned at Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezín. A score of Brundibár was smuggled in, and Krása adapted it for the instruments available there. The opera debuted in September of that year, performed by the children of the camp and directed by František Zelenka, formerly a stage manager at the Czech National Theatre. It would go on to be performed numerous times, including for Red Cross representatives who visited the camp in 1944, and for a Nazi propaganda film. The filmed production would be the last at the camp: Shortly after filming, all participants were sent to Auschwitz; nearly all were gassed upon arrival.

Los Robles Children’s Choir directors Dana Rouse and Alicia Langness took care in helping the young singers understand the context and importance of the opera. “You can’t let evil go unchecked. You have to stand together,” says Rouse, who adds that Brundibár is “an important story.” Rouse and Langness emphasized the opera’s overall theme of good conquering evil. “It starts out rather bleak,” says Rouse, “but it ends triumphantly.” She describes the production as a “neat hybrid” of choir performance and theater production, with the children acting out their parts in costume while sharing the stage with the New West Symphony.

Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream represents a triumph over evil, as well. As part of his effort to blot out the contributions and voices of Jewish artists, Adolf Hitler called on the composer Richard Strauss to re-write Mendelssohn’s work. Strauss refused and we are still able to hear the music as Mendelssohn created it, including the very familiar “Wedding March.”

The second concert of the Duet of Remembrance is Violins of Hope, scheduled for April 18-19. Violins of Hope is a collection of instruments that once belonged to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Each instrument was “lovingly and painstakingly” restored by Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom. Weinstein, whose own family bears the scars of the Holocaust, once said in an interview on National Public Radio that the Violins of Hope are “like tombstones for the thousands of Jewish instruments and musicians destroyed in the war.” “The Violins of Hope are Weinstein’s resistance,” wrote journalist Julie Rose.

The Violins of Hope program includes Elegy for Anne Frank by Lukas Foss, as well as Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 4 “Heichalos,” which was written especially for the orchestra, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. As an entr’acte, the orchestra will play Grażyna Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra (Allegro), which NWS describes as “a brief contemporary piece you may never hear anywhere else.” Michael Christie conducts, with Olga Kern on the piano. 

With more music and meaning for just one concert, the Duet of Remembrance recalls one of the darkest times in our history while shining a light of hope in a way that only music can.

Dreams will be performed on Saturday, Feb. 29, at 7:30 p.m. at Fred Kavli Theatre at the Bank of American Performing Arts Center, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks; and on Sunday, March 1, at 3 p.m. at Rancho Campaña Performing Arts Center, 4235 Mar Vista Drive, Camarillo. Violins of Hope will be performed April 18-19. For tickets and more information, call 805-497-5800 or visit newwestsymphony.org.

NOTE: This article was edited to include a new piece selected for Violins of Hope, and correct information regarding the choir directors.