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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Righteousness and Bravery: A Yiddish Symphony for Sugihara

Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 6, Vessels of Light, resonates with a spiritual message of remembrance and healing amidst the destruction and violence of the Holocaust.

Under the title, Righteousness and Bravery: A Concert for Sugihara, Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No.6, Vessels of Light, receives its West Coast premiere on May 18th at Herb Alpert School of Music’s Royce Hall.

Auerbach’s work opens an entire cosmos of unusual sounds, colors, and fantasies, characterizing her highly developed personal style. Her 6th symphony, Vessels of Light, a monumental work for violoncello, choir, with vocal soloists and whisperers, and orchestra, is the first symphonic composition of its scope with a libretto entirely devoted to the Yiddish language. One might refer to it as the first Yiddish Symphony.

Vessels of Light will be performed as part of the new Music and Justice Series of the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience.

(Photo Credit: Raniero Tazzi – Lera Auerbach)

The realization of the symphony’s commission by Yad Vashem and production, supported by the American Society of Yad Vashem, was catalyzed by American-Japanese-Israeli cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, whose husband’s father was among those saved by Sugihara.

A former classmate of Auerbach at Juilliard, Cooper is featured among the leading voices of the symphony’s intricately multi-layered, contextual components.

Cooper will accompany Vessel of Light’s international premieres during its first two years, including its Los Angeles performance. Here, next to Cooper on violoncello, it features David Childs, whisperer, Jessica Kligman, whisperer, Madison Chamberlain, soprano, Young-A Yum, alto, Jon Lee Keenan, tenor, and Troy Robertson, bass, as soloists.

(Photo Credit: From the work's premiere in Kaunas, Lithuania)

Located on UCLA‘s campus, with Neal Stulberg leading the UCLA Philharmonia and Chamber Singers, the production has a strong educational and communal outreach component in line with the Milken Foundation’s mission. It is a natural outgrowth of the immense collection available through the Milken Archive of Jewish Music:

“From the outset, our vision was to create a living archive, making education central to our mission. The partnership with The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music positions the new center as a global leader in the field of music of the American Jewish experience,” says UCLA alumnus Lowell Milken, who spearheads the foundation’s endeavors.

The series presents works with a substantial artistic underpinning and a narrative relating to civil responsibility, individual courage, and justice.

With the center’s inception in 2020, the series’ formation takes root in the growing societal polarization and subliminal hostility magnified by the pandemic.

“Through music, we want to convey how each individual can make a difference by speaking out against injustice,” says Mark Kligman, Director of the Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music.

“We champion music that tells a story about each individual’s courage, standing up for what’s right – showing the significance of Tikkun Olam, which means saving the world,” he says.

With Antisemitism on the rise, the series is geared to bring artists, academics, and the greater community together to encourage a communal dialogue that connects to the Jewish experience in America, with particularly relevant content focusing on social justice, racism, and antisemitism.

“Reading the news, people in America feel vulnerable every day. In Los Angeles, the Jewish community just experienced two shocking hate crimes. Two Jewish men were killed in two shootings as they walked home from their synagogues; it happened right here in our neighborhood,” he says.

Confirming the urgent need to fortify the series’ underlying sentiment is an official statement released by the state attorney in response to the shootings: “It is important, especially in one of the most diverse areas in the world, that we celebrate our differences and stand together to oppose acts of hate.”

The upcoming installment of the Music and Justice series, featuring Auerbach’s Vessel of Light, aims to do just that.

It follows the series’ February performance of jazz legend Dave Brubeck’s Gates of Justice, a large-scale sacred music composition from 1969, directly inspired by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Merging Bible quotes and liturgical texts with Kings’ writing and the use of the shofar, associated with repentance, Brubeck’s work is a “unique call for “universal brotherhood” between Jews and African Americans, a message reflected in the texts and music, both of which drew on these respective cultures,” explains the Milken Archive.

Both Brubeck’s eclectic work and Auerbach’s commission to compose a symphony dedicated to Sugihara convey a specific cultural context while sounding out a broader existential appeal for all of humanity. In the score of Vessels of Light, dedicated to Chiune Sugihara, Auerbach adds, “…and to all those who risked everything to save others.”

(Photo: Chiune Sugihara, Yad Vashem Archives)

The commission by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, honors the heroic acts of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986), who defied orders as the vice-consul of Japan in Kaunas, Lithuania, during World War II, by "passing" transit visas, issued by the Dutch Consul, Jan Zwartendijkthrough, through Japanese territory to thousands of persecuted Jews fleeing Europe.

Revered as a Righteous among the Nations at Jerusalem’s Mount of Remembrance, Sugihara is included among courageous non-Jews from all walks of life, nations, and occupations who saved their Jewish neighbors.

The symphony Vessels of Light finds common threads of thought in the Judaic concepts of Shevirat ha-Kelim, (Breaking of the Vessels) and Tikkun Olam (restoration of the world), Yiddish poems, with Kintsugi, the ancient Japanese technique of mending broken pottery. Also known as Kintsukuroi (Golden Repair), it illuminates the scars of breakage instead of masking them, thus enhancing the beauty and uniqueness of the object.

Building layers upon layers, Auerbach’s complex artistic concept centers on the act of breakage and repair. It not only integrates elements of the two very different Jewish and Japanese cultures but reaches beyond the work’s literal impetus of its commission.

The symphony’s title, “Vessels of Light,” refers to the mystical concepts of Shevirat HaKelim (שבירת הכלים‎) "Shattering of the Vessels” and Tikkun Olam (תִּיקּוּן עוֹלָם, “repair of the world”). Part of the teachings of Jewish Kabbalah, these vessels are described as containing the light of divine creation that overpowered by its power burst and fell into space. Some sparks of the divine light attached themselves to the broken shards of the vessels (source of evil and the material world) and remained trapped there, to be freed by human deeds. Tikkun refers to the processes by which restoration and repair are to be accomplished.

In Auerbach’s work, borders between artistic genres often blur as her creative processes traverse meaning from one medium into another.

This is also the case with her symphonic work Vessels of Light and sculpture, Silent Psalm. Born side by side out of the physical act of composing music for Psalm 121 of David and violently tearing it into pieces. The shredded fragments of the music manuscript for the Psalm, written for Soprano, Alto, Baritone, and Bass voices, “I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from?” and the process of its repair became the seed of the symphony’s concept, structure, and musical material.

In Vessels of Light, the Psalm is silent, shattered, and fragmented. It appears written in the libretto as an internal mediation or prayer. A metaphor for the Holocaust, unspeakable and in shards, it builds a silent thread, interspersed by Yiddish poems, whispered, and sung in alternating configurations. The continuous lines of the cello, like the “golden glue,” repair the pieces’ destructive forces.

The void of the Psalm’s notation only takes shape in the sculpture Silent Psalm. Here, Kintsugi is taken more literally. Auerbach shattered the mold of the musical manuscript into shards. Repaired by Kintsugi, its exposed cracks are filled with a patinaed golden thread that appears in the shape of a Magen David (Shield of David).

Underneath its Hebrew inscription, the Psalm’s words have transformed into composed music notations cast in bronze.

(Photo: Sculpture Silent Psalm in its current bronze cast created by Lera Auerbach at Hermann Noack Foundry, Berlin)

Working on many different levels of meaning, expression, and context, Auerbach often pushes the boundaries of the medium she works in.

As a tribute to the language, which lost so many people who spoke it, Auerbach chose Yiddish texts by Yisroel Emyot, Dovid Hofshteyn, Simkha-BunimShayevitch, Peretz Markish, Avrom Sutzkever, Itzik Manger, Reyzl Zhiklinksi, and Moyshe Teyf. These were transliterated for Auerbach by star pianist and Yiddish poetry recitalist Evgeny Kissin and the former Editor of the Yiddish Forward, Boris Sandler.

A poet herself, Auerbach says their works inspired the symphony greatly. The intention for the connecting cello lines, for example, “springs from the Yiddish poet Dovid Hofshteyn’s “Violoncello,” in which the poet addresses his soul, which continues to vibrate high and low through blood and suffering, eternally alive. It presents that mystical “string” that unites all Jewish people, scattered across the world’s different cultures, and yet remaining mysteriously united,” describes Auerbach.

Beyond spanning a historic arch that binds the suffering and survival of the Jewish people scattered throughout the world, Auerbach’s art addresses the universal state of the human condition, as a moral quest for beauty and repair, even amidst destruction and violence.


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