Joe Holt remembers coming home from a discussion group led by his father, a Presbyterian minister, during the height of the civil rights era and finding a burning cross in their Georgia front yard.
Liz Bergmann sees the neighbor who shook a broom at her and shouted, "You get out of here, you dirty Jew!" when she was 8, and guiltily recollects how she hid her heritage for decades.
Sheridan Seyfried recalls reading "Night," Elie Wiesel's memoir about surviving the Nazi concentration camps, and pouring his emotional response into one of the first compositions of his musical career.
Neither the director, the choreographer nor the composer (respectively) of "Voices of the Holocaust," a concert that will take place on Holocaust Remembrance Day April 28, is old enough to have lived through that painful period of 20th-century history. But that doesn't mean they, or other performers in this multi-organization extravaganza, don't carry their own memories of discrimination and injustice.
Even the youngest — 6-year-old dancer Alexis Burnette Skowronski, daughter of Kelly Burnette, who teaches at the Manatee School for the Arts — knows the meaning of bullying.
And that's the point behind this one-night-only performance, says Holt, artistic director of Gloria Musicae. Though the horrors of Nazi Germany may be in the past, man's inhumanity to man is alive and all too well.
"Yes, we're viewing it as a Holocaust remembrance concert, which it is," says Holt, the catalyst behind the choice of Seyfried's 80-minute, five-movement cantata, which is based on 22 songs sung in the ghettos and concentration camps during World War II. "However, it's also about the issues that brought about the Holocaust in the first place and that we still find today — intolerance, hatred, racial and ethnic prejudice, bullying."
About 170 artists — from the Sarasota Jewish Chorale, Sarasota Young Voices, the Booker High music program, Chroma Quartet and Sarasota-Manatee Dance Alliance — have joined together for the substantial undertaking, which has been in the works for more than a year. The production also features an introduction by civil rights activist and longtime news correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and video imagery not only from the Holocaust, but from other historic instances of racial, gender and ethnic bigotry.
Seyfried, a resident of Philadelphia, adapted the folk music and poetry from a recording by baritone Leon Lishner, under the guidance of Phil Klein, who originally conceived of the work. Though not Jewish himself, the composer, only 20 at the time of its 2004 premiere, was profoundly moved by the material.
"The poetry and tunes are haunting, sad, beautiful and uplifting — often at the same time," says Seyfried, who will attend the Sarasota performance. "I let myself be carried along by the melodies and poems, setting them as best I could musically in a way that honored the originals, only embellishing where I thought it would be effective."
Much of the music is folk-based, says Holt, and will sound familiar, "especially to Jewish audiences" who may recognize the final song — "Never Never Say This is the Final Road for You" — which is sometimes referred to as the Jewish national anthem. The music has an infectious quality that keeps it from becoming oppressive, says Holt, and it neatly balances moments of despair with respites of celebration and determination.
"It ends in a strongly defiant mode, reminding us that, through art, we find we are able to endure almost anything because its beauty and hope pulls us through," Holt says.
Though "Voices" has been performed 11 times over the past decade — from Pennsylvania to Brazil — this will be the first time dance will be incorporated. Holt, who knew Bergmann, the former dean of dance at Harvard, only casually, approached her last February to gauge her interest in choreographing, using local dancers. He provided her with online links to musical excerpts from the score.
"I heard them and it was a no-brainer," says Bergmann. "I connected with them immediately. They went right to my soul."
Seyfried was also taken with the concept of adding the element of movement.
"I am intrigued by the idea of adding dancers to the performance," he says. "And I think it will be an appropriate gesture to honor those people who loved to dance who perished in the Holocaust alongside their musical and poetic brothers and sisters."
But adding dance created a new challenge. The program was originally scheduled to take place at the Methodist church in downtown Sarasota, but Bergmann took one look at the confined space there and told Holt they needed to change venues. To accommodate the entire cast and the dancers' expansive movement, it would have to be somewhere much larger.
"There was only one place where we could have everyone on stage, and that was the Van Wezel," she says.
But renting the 1,700-seat Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall represented a huge commitment for such a small organization; the $100,000 budget for the project is more than two-thirds of Gloria Musicae's annual budget. Even with assistance from the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, tourist development dollars, and Bergmann's agreement to raise funds for the dancers' portion of the expenses, the financial risk was intimidating.
"We've never done anything of this magnitude before and it gave me huge pause," says Holt, in his fifth year as director of the choral group. "But a lot of people have come to the fore to help us."
Eventually, more than 70 dancers auditioned; Bergman selected 24, ranging in age from 6 to nearly 60. (After a little attrition, there are now 20). Judy Ruskin Howell, a Sarasota resident and costume designer for big-budget Hollywood movies like "Sleepless in Seattle," agreed to assemble and create the costumes.
Some fundraising remains — the dance alliance recently launched a campaign at Jewcer.com to solicit donations — but the multiple elements have come together "like the pieces of a puzzle," Holt says. However, for logistical and financial reasons, the entire cast will not have an opportunity to rehearse all together and on the stage until the morning of the performance.
"It was a big gamble on our part, but I have no regrets," says Bergmann. "It's been a hugely cathartic experience for me and I think for the people who go, it will be an unforgettable evening."
Originally scheduled for March, the change of venue meant snatching the first available date at the Van Wezel after Easter and before all the snowbirds would have left town. That ended up being April 28.
"We didn't even know it was Holocaust Remembrance Day when we took that date," says Bergmann. "But that makes it seem even more meant to be."
There will be a panel discussion of the production with composer Seyfried; his mentor, James Grant; Gloria Musicae's Holt; and choreographer Bergmann, from 4 to 6 p.m. on April 25 at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 1741 Main St. The event is free, but seating is limited and on a first-come basis.
VOICES OF THE HOLOCAUST, Gloria Musicae, with the Sarasota Jewish Chorale, Sarasota Young Voices, Booker High School Music Program, Chroma Quartet and Sarasota-Manatee Dance Alliance. 7:30 p.m. April 28, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail. $25-$70 (students half off if purchased at box office). 953-3368; www.vanwezel.org.