Whether your personal musical tastes run to Beyoncé or Bach, you’ve no doubt experienced music’s transformative power to lift spirits, deepen a somber mood, inspire action or leave you with thoughts worth pondering.
The SS officers who worked at the Nazi concentration camp at Birkenau (the death camp of Auschwitz) apparently favored the music of Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Strauss and other composers: They forced 54 women musicians to perform it for them and for their fellow Jews and other captives during forced work details and prisoner load-ins onto trains bound for the crematoria. Following the Liberation, these women (who all survived, except their conductor, who is believed to have died of food poisoning) cited their orchestra membership as lifesaving.
Woodstock’s Ars Choralis is celebrating its 50th anniversary year this year. The not-for-profit choral group of countywide members will perform “Music in Desperate Times: Remembering the Women’s Orchestra of Birkenau” this weekend in Woodstock and Poughkeepsie. The choral and orchestral program is interspersed with the writings of women who lived in Nazi concentration camps. Though conductor Barbara Pickhardt acknowledges that it’s impossible to comprehend fully what these women endured, the concert offers a rare opportunity to absorb the power of their remarkable resilience. And, she believes, audiences will be uplifted and inspired by their courage.
Pickhardt first heard of the Birkenau orchestra in the mid-1990s, and has since devoted herself to research, development and presentation of this concert program. Many Ars Choralis members have performed “Music in Desperate Times” in one of eight previous concerts, including programs at St. John the Divine in New York and in Germany. Even so, an emotional journey ensues, alongside practicing the proper notes and rehearsing to come in on cue at the right moments.
Ann Marie Woolsey, one of Ars Choralis’ newest members, calls her involvement with the 45-member chorus “very special. It’s my Sunday-night therapy,” she says, referring to the weekly rehearsals. “I feel blessed. With other choirs, there have usually been a few pieces where I think, ‘I don’t want to sing this,’ but here, every piece speaks to me. Barbara is a behind-the-scenes activist, and her art is music-as-activism. The concerts bring the community together, and they’re rooted in peace and love.”
“The material for this concert is really tough,” she adds, “and I’ve broken down, quietly, a few times in preparing for it. When Barbara reads excerpts from the women’s writings and talks about the run-through of the program – singing, orchestra performances, narrative readings, candle-lighting – the other members of the choir nod. They all know what to expect. The material is extremely upsetting. I really don’t know a better word for it; it’s just upsetting. Some of the pieces are somber, while others are uplifting and talk more about hope and courage, which is the theme of the concert. The songs are not all about persecution.”
Longtime Ars Choralis member Anne Brueckner says, “As we prepare for this concert, I have been struck by the dual nature of the experience: how you bring your own individual perspective and emotional baggage to the fore, and how you relate to the experience as a member of a broader group where the individual becomes integrated into the community. I find that I am ‘me,’ and then I am also not-me, but rather am intertwined with the others. You feel for yourself, and you feel for the entire organism.”
Pickhardt has made this concert a part of her life for 20 years and says, “I feel like I’ve learned so much, and have certainly been affected profoundly by the story of the Women’s Orchestra of Birkenau, as well as by the response of our audiences, and that of our singers and orchestra members.”
During the concert, singers wear lavender scarves, as did the women of the original ensemble, who did so to cover their shaved heads. “When you put on the scarf, you take on the identity of the person, and it has an effect on the way you experience the music,” Pickhardt explains. “You become that person; you sing through the tears. By and large, the story is beautiful… You wonder, ‘Where does the courage to keep going come from?’ Their orchestra kept them alive.”
In April 2009, survivors of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Furstenberg, Germany invited Ars Choralis to perform at their annual Liberation Day ceremonies on the grounds of the camp. Heilig Kreuz Passion Church in Berlin also invited Ars Choralis to perform “Music in Desperate Times.” While on tour there, Ars Choralis members met and talked with women who were concentration camp survivors. One of them, cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, granted Ars Choralis permission to use her words as long as they were not altered.
“In Germany, we sang songs with women who were attending Liberation Day ceremonies, and intermingled with survivors and the families of those who were murdered in the camps,” says Pickhardt. “The women we met when we were in Germany said, ‘Tell the story. We’re old. Keep it alive,’ and I took that very seriously. This message needs to be heard, and we’re just one more voice. Everything counts. Everything matters.”
This weekend, Lasker-Wallfisch’s narrative, along with the writings captured in books and memoirs of Birkenau orchestra conductor Alma Rosé and music arranger Fania Fenelon, will be read by Victoria Langling, Cecelia Keehn and Lily Arbisser. The program features music that the original ensemble was forced to play for its Nazi captors: an excerpt from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “Träumerei” from Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, Chopin’s Étude No. 3 in E Major, The Beautiful Blue Danube by Strauss, an excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin (Elizabeth Silver, soloist) and “Un bel di vedremo” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (Lily Arbisser, soloist).
During the past 50 years, Ars Choralis has performed widely for capacity crowds throughout the Hudson Valley, including Elizabethan feasts and, in more recent times, following 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, the Indonesian tsunami and other major catastrophes. They perform holiday concerts at area churches, and spring and summer concerts in artistic and natural environments such as Maverick Concerts and Opus 40. “We usually do three concert performances each year, and we’ll keep going,” Pickhardt says. “We share the joy of singing and enrichment, for peace, for goodness, for love.”
Ars Choralis will present “Music in Desperate Times: Remembering the Women’s Orchestra of Birkenau” on Saturday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie and on Sunday, April 26th at 4 p.m. at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in Woodstock. Tickets may be purchased for $20 at the door or, for $18 in advance, at https://www.arschoralis.com; Mother Earth’s Storehouse in Kingston; DIG in Saugerties; and at Catskill Art & Office Supply and the Golden Notebook in Woodstock. Children’s tickets are half-price. For further information, please visit https://www.arschoralis.com.