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‘Out of the Shadows’ in Cape Town and Stellenbosch: a truly lekker experience

By Stephen Muir

Before I begin my report proper, I should put my cards on the table: I’m biased! I was born in Zambia, spent quite some time in South Africa as a young child, have family in Durban, and have spent the last nearly ten years visiting South Africa regularly, researching the history and place of music in the country’s Jewish world, and meeting some extraordinary people along the way. In fact, for me personally, this is where the seeds of the whole Performing the Jewish Archive project were planted, even though the project has subsequently expanded across the globe to become something far bigger. So I apologise if I am somewhat more effusive in my recollections of this particular PtJA festival; the others have been equally brilliant.

Personal disclaimers aside; the last of the five ‘Out of the Shadows’ festivals of rediscovered Jewish music and theatre took place in the Western Cape province of South Africa, 10–17 September 2017. Thirteen performances, two academic symposia, twelve venues, eleven world premieres, and total audience numbers approaching 2200 made this among the most well-attended and diverse of the five festivals organised by Performing the Jewish Archive.

Festival opening concert in the Garden Synagogue

The ‘Out of the Shadows’ festivals have all featured engagement with local communities at their heart, be they communities of performers, scholars, religions, or audiences. The Cape Festival brought to fruition partnerships forged over a number of years with major organisations in the region, most prominently (but by no means exclusively) the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the Jewish Museum, Stellenbosch and Cape Town universities, the Gardens and Green & Sea Point Synagogues, and significant individuals such as Aviva Pelham, Matthew Reid, Richard Freedman, Gavin Morris, Cantors Ivor Joffe and Choni Goldman, and the leaders of various synagogue communities. Underpinning these groups have been the remarkable first-, second-, and third-generation Cape-based survivors of the Holocaust and the war more broadly, whose support and close interest has always been overwhelmingly positive.

And special tribute must be paid here to the remarkable two-man team of Peter Martens and Charl van Heyningen, without whose unending hard work and good humour (and team of excellent helpers!) this festival could never have taken place.

To provide an adequate review of each event during the festival would occupy many more words than I have here. I hope this brief survey will help to put across the sheer range of performances (and responses to them) that the Cape Festival represented.

The atmosphere of excitement and heightened emotion for the Festival Opening Concert at the Gardens synagogue was palpable. This was this the first time in living memory that the Cape’s two remaining full-time synagogue choirs had performed together non-competitively; the iconic ‘Mother Synagogue’ was buzzing with some 421 audience members; and those present heard instrumental, choral and cantorial music composed in 1920s and ’30s Russia and Poland, but rediscovered in recent years in Cape Town itself.

Miriam Lichterman

Above all, however, was a feeling of immense warmth, of a community hungry for knowledge of its past, and greatly anticipating a week’s celebration of Jewish music and theatre that survived, often against all odds. Performances from Ivor Joffe, Choni Goldman and their respective shul choirs were accompanied by strings and piano, whilst pianist Pieter Grobler previewed music composed in the Warsaw ghetto by child prodigy Josima Feldschuh, later explored in more detail in his concert Fractured Lives.

The opening day concluded with a reception at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, hosted by the Director of South Africa’s Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, and a true friend to our project, Richard Freedman. The PtJA project exhibition provided a fitting backdrop to a series of mini-performances drawn from the festival programme, concluded by a powerful and intensely moving talk on music in Warsaw before and during the ghetto years. This was delivered by the remarkable Warsaw-born Miriam Lichterman, who survived a series of concentration camps, a death march, and unimaginable suffering before rebuilding her life in South Africa.

A Comedy of Us Jews

Theatre featured prominently in the Cape Festival, represented by three very different productions. A Comedy of Us Jews (1940), by Finnish–Jewish author Jac Weinstein, satirizes the Jewish clothing trade and the consequences of heavy rationing. PtJA researcher Simo Muir’s initial English translation of Weinstein’s Yiddish script had been skilfully adapted by fellow researcher Lisa Peschel and finalized by South African opera legend Aviva Pelham. Rounded off by clarinettist Matthew Reid’s song arrangements and inspired performances from a cast including Michelle Maxwell and Nicholas Ellenbogen, the musical comedy played to two capacity audiences in the old synagogue at Cape Town’s Jewish Museum.

One of PtJA researcher Lisa Peschel’s research outcomes was Prince Bettliegend. This musical revue was created at Stellenbosch University out of an original fragmentary script written by Czech–Jewish prisoners in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto, drawing also upon surviving Terezín actors’ memories of the song lyrics and plot highlights, and an earlier (and somewhat different) version created for the Sydney Festival (August 2017). The revue received two brilliant performances by students from Stellenbosch’s music and drama departments, and was a disarmingly amusing and satirical reminder that war and involuntary confinement can breed corruption, and challenge even the most fundamental moral norms of society.

Prince Bettliegend

An even greater contrast, the children’s opera Red Riding Hood by Austrian émigré composer Wilhelm Grosz and English author Rose Fyleman featured the highly accomplished Kensington Chorale Girls Choir and Kenmere Primary School Choir in a spirited performance at Parow’s magnificent Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium. The production demonstrated how significant local cultural and societal circumstances can be: The traditional costumes, idyllic woodland setting, and underlying atmosphere of threatened innocence encapsulated in the opera’s excellent Sydney Festival production were here marvellously transformed into sassy characters dressed in onesies and foresters hilariously brandishing pistols instead of old-fashioned shotguns. In the end the wicked yet ‘seriously misunderstood’ wolf gets his comeuppance just the same, to the delight of an enthusiastic audience and PtJA researcher Joseph Toltz, who has tirelessly championed Grosz’s music for a number of years.

One of PtJA’s priorities has been the fostering of new musical and theatrical creative talent. New songs from the Jewish Archive consisted of new pieces (based upon the research of the PtJA team) composed by students of Professors Hendrik Hofmeyr (UCT) and Hans Roosenschoon (Stellenbosch Konservatorium) and featuring singers Minette du Toit Pearce and Jolene McClelland. Highly diverse in style and source material, each song encapsulated an aspect of historical experience interpreted anew for audiences to contemplate within the context of modern conflict and political instability.

The two performances of New songs from the Jewish Archive were paired with two academic symposia, Looking forward through the past. We were honoured to welcome distinguished Professor of Composition Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph (Wits University), whose insights into the individual songs, as well as the whole notion of music that reflects narratives of suffering, were fascinating, informative and challenging all at the same time.

The Baxter Concert Hall

Chamber music was strongly represented in a concert of works by Wilhelm Grosz, Walter Wurzburger, and Werner Baer, all interests of PtJA researcher Joseph Toltz. These composers fled their German/Austrian homes for refuge variously in England, Australia and the United States; and all three continued to experience varying degrees of discrimination at the hands of fellow musicians and broadcasters in their new homelands. The concert brought to light exquisite songs and chamber works that were sidelined primarily because of their composers’ Jewish identity, including world premieres of Wurzburger’s first String Quartet and Grosz’s String Quartet in D Major (Op. 4). The Baxter Concert Hall, with its history of challenging repression and upholding the rights of the oppressed, was a highly appropriate venue for the reintroduction of these unjustly neglected pieces.

The tragically short but artistically remarkable life of child prodigy Josima Feldschuh was placed in close proximity with that of the more established but equally tragic figure of Viktor Ullmann in Fractured Lives: Music of the Holocaust, part of Stellenbosch Konservatorium’s highly regarded Endler Concert Series. Whilst inevitably a little naïve in style, the seven short pieces by the 12/13–year–old Feldschuh revealed the confident and individual musical personality, full of unrealized potential, that had also emerged via performances at earlier ‘Out of the Shadows’ festivals. The subject of PtJA researcher Teryl Dobbs’ research, Feldshuh’s music was rendered sensitively by pianist Pieter Grobler, who described the experience as extremely stimulating, despite knowledge of the circumstances of the music’s composition.

The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

Wilhelm Grosz composed his Serenade early in his career in Vienna, and its enormous and rather unusual scoring is perhaps one reason that it has dropped from the orchestral repertoire, though Grosz’s personal experiences of exile and discrimination are surely rather more pertinent. The work (edited by Joseph Toltz, with assistance from myself and one of my students) features a double string section, two harps, celeste, piano, large woodwind and brass sections, and even two mandolins (though curiously no trombones), and was performed magnificently by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Conrad van Alphen, alongside Richard Strauss’s equally extravagant tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra and Schumann’s A minor Cello Concerto.

The final concert of the Cape Festival, and indeed of the whole ‘Out of the Shadows’ series of festivals, was particularly poignant for me personally. Journeys in Jewish Choral Music represented almost a homecoming, in that the choral and cantorial works featured in the concert were mostly the outcomes of research that I undertook in Cape Town between 2012 and 2016. I should pay tribute to the Worldwide Universities Network, the British Academy, and of course the AHRC, whose support has been vital to this work. But equally the families of the composers whose music I conducted with the superb Cape Soloists Choir have been generous beyond measure. These composers fled persecution under the Russian Empire, ending up in Cape Town, and bringing with them their own music manuscripts and those of colleagues and friends left behind. Froim Spektor’s hauntingly beautiful setting of Habet mischamajim ureh, Morris Katzin’s cantorial tour de force rendition of the Kaddish prayer, and works by Spektor’s Rostov-on-Don organist colleague Josef Gottbeter all stand out for me, alongside Eyli, eyli by Finnish composer Simon Parmet (with thanks to PtJA researcher Simo Muir). The concert ended with the work whose discovery amongst Spektor’s papers in 2012 formed the seed that grew into Performing the Jewish Archive: Dowid Ajzensztadt’s extraordinary four-movement Passover Cantata Chad Gadya, composed in Warsaw around 1920, performed with orchestral accompaniment in the city’s Tłomackie Street Synagogue in 1931, but then almost completely forgotten until the early choral draft of the work, retained by Spektor, came to light in Cape Town in 2012.

From left: Stephen Muir, Emma Dolby, Lisa Peschel, Joseph Toltz, Olivia Thomas, Libby Clark, Stefan Fairlamb and Simo Muir.

Despite its relatively low profile and fairly small audience capacity, Rondebosch’s Erin Hall seemed absolutely fitting for this final performance. As the research team, performers and audience emerged into the slowly setting sunlight to celebrate their success in the courtyard afterwards, the concert hall, embedded within the local community and sustained by volunteers and charitable donations, represented for me all that Performing the Jewish Archive stands for: the emergence of all these precious artworks by Jewish musicians and writers—once hidden and nearly forgotten through discrimination, war, even genocide—out of the shadows and back into public light via the agency of dedicated local performers within their own communities.

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