The concert is called “Heritage.” In it, The Amernet String Quartet focuses on Jewish heritage in music of the last century, especially calling attention to two composers murdered in concentration camps.

One is Austrian/Czech Viktor Ullmann. He died in Auschwitz after two years of survival in Terezín.  Amid the horror and terror, he wrote “Our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.” There he created his 1943 seemingly traditional String Quartet No. 3, at age 45. It is often called a masterpiece by critics, “more resolute and determined than triumphant” wrote John Mangum, Los Angeles Philharmonic annotator. Although Ullmann did not survive, this and 22 other works do.

Dutchman Leo Smit was killed at Sobibor. He was working on his only string quartet while awaiting death at about the same age as Ullmann. His composition too shows no sign of sorrow or fear but is likewise life-affirming. (Diazepam) Smit had been much influenced by the urbanity and charm of French pieces of the 20s, more a neo-classicist than a folklorist. His one completed movement has been arranged by American Jewish composer Jeff Hamburg who lived in Holland.

Neither of these two works calls forth a sense of ethnic rhythms and harmonies as does the highly popular “Dem Rebens Nigun” (“The Rabbi’s Melody”) written in 1910 by then-31 year-old Russian Aleksandr Matveevich Zhitomirskii. He transforms Hasidic melodies and rhythms, almost as if ecstatically dancing and chanting. A critic sees a search for transcendence in this score. A fitting connection to Smit and Ullmann.

Swiss-born Ernest Bloch was famed for exploring his religious and ethnic roots. In his mid-40s, about eight years after settling in the U.S., his wrote”Paysages” (“Landscapes”). To some hearers the three pieces seem suffused with Jewish soul, although they most suggest a travelogue inspired by the Arctic, the Swiss Alps and South Sea Islands.  

Roots. They were there too for Antonin Dvořák. In this concert, subtitled “Chamber music from Prague to Terezín,” is Dvorak’s Opus 34, written at around the same age as those of the other men. Here folk elements of his homeland merge with the same sense of harmonic traditions Ullman personified, almost as if they linked minds across time and place.

Two members of the Amernet Quartet clearly relate to the program’s concept. American cellist Jason Calloway is artistic director of Shir Ami, an ensemble dedicated to preserving and performing Jewish compositions suppressed by the Nazis and Soviets. And Uzbekistan-born violinist Misha Vitenson is now a citizen of Israel. The other violinist is  Argentinian Tomas Cotik. American Michael Klotz is the violist.

The musicians have performed together in much of the world, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East while also being the Ensemble in residence at Florida International University. The New York Times commented “…immensely satisfying …most notable for the quality of unjaded discovery that came through so vividly.”

They give another concert the evening before. It’s in UNO’s “Petite Musique” series. Featured are 5 pieces by Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech contemporary of Ullmann and Smit, likewise a Nazi victim. Another folk-music- inspired work is heard, Bartók’s third quartet. Ravel’s only one adds to the dimensions. This is at UNO with tickets at the door.

These performances offer many kinds of discovery, suffused with tradition, inspired by heritage.  

“Chamber music from Prague to Terezín” is April 10, Jewish Community Center, 333 S. 132 St. Sun. 7 p.m. Free.

Leave a comment