Harmony from Discord
Wednesday, March 4, 2020
I’m downtown having coffee with Yaniv Attar, the Israeli-born conductor who has led the Bellingham Symphony to new heights of excellence. I have been especially moved by his Harmony from Discord concert series and wanted to learn more. I started by asking Yaniv to explain what the series is all about.
Yaniv Attar: It’s a concert series celebrating music that transcends oppression by shining a light on composers whose music has endured through the darkest of times. I started with the goal of focusing on Jewish composers who died in the Holocaust. There were to be three elements to the series: one, to focus on Jewish composers banned by the Nazi regime; two, to play music by composers who died in the Holocaust and, whenever possible, to play music they composed while prisoners, and three, to play music written today in honor of these composers.
Alan Rhodes: How did you get the idea for the series?
YA: When I was thinking about this, it was not intended as a series. I discussed a concert of the music of Holocaust victims with Executive Director Thomas Mayes, and it was obvious that we couldn’t fit all the music into one concert. It was Thom who had the idea of making it a multi-year initiative, and the series was born.
AR: Did you have any concerns about the concept?
YA: I had a very big reservation because I knew this might be hard to sell to the public. Most classical audiences want to hear their Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. To present a concert with Erwin Schulhoff, Laszlo Weiner, and Pal Hermann—I was afraid nobody would come. Fortunately we live in a great, open-minded community. The reception of this wonderful music was overwhelmingly positive.
AR: Talk about that first concert.
YA: It was in 2016. We played a beautiful piece by Laszlo Weiner, a Hungarian Jewish composer who was murdered in the Holocaust, a concerto for flute, viola and piano, with principal players from the Seattle Symphony as soloists. The music is so lyrical and lush; it connects to the audience immediately. At the beginning of the concert we had a short talk by Holocaust survivor Noemi Ban. She was a prisoner at Auschwitz, and her reflections were incredibly moving. The success of the concert was wonderful and it created a lot of excitement around a series of this kind.
AR: I try to never miss a Bellingham Symphony concert and this series is always a highlight for me. What’s on the program for your March 15 concert?
YA: The first half will feature composers banned by the Nazis, but who managed to escape to the United States, where they became very successful. We’ll play “Theme and Variations” by Erich Korngold, and a guitar concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The second half will feature two composers who were killed during the Holocaust. We’ll open with a piece by Pavel Haas, “Study for Strings,” that he wrote as a prisoner in Terezin. It premiered in the camp itself. We’ll close with a piano concerto by Erwin Schulhoff who was nicknamed the “Gershwin of Europe” because he incorporated jazz elements in symphonic music, but he did it way before Gershwin did. We have two amazing soloists coming, the Israeli-Russian guitarist Daniel Bolshoy and pianist Jessica Choe.
AR: It sounds like a powerful afternoon. How do you see the series developing in the future? Any changes?
YA: Yes. Next season, our 45th anniversary, will be the last Harmony from Discord concert that will focus solely on Jewish composers. We will start featuring music from other minorities, works by refugees, African-American composers, women composers, and so on. The series is not just about the past.
AR: That seems especially important, given the rise in hate crimes, white nationalism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-Semitism that we’re seeing these days.
YA: Yes, the series is even more relevant today.
AR: I’ve heard that you received some very exciting news about the series.
YA: This year, thanks to our current Executive Director Gail Ridenour, we’ll present the series at the National Conference of the League of American Orchestras in Minnesota. We are very proud of this series, and thankful our audience has been so open to hearing this music. I believe we are taking the first steps in making sure these composers are never forgotten. This series is not depressing; it is uplifting!
AR: As one who has attended all of these concerts, I enthusiastically agree.
Tickets for the March 15th concert are available by phone (360-734-6080), online (MountBakerTheater.com) or at the box office.