REVIEW: 'Voices' a beautiful reminder of a painful past
Never in its 34-year history has Gloria Musicae mounted as ambitious a production as "Voices of the Holocaust," presented at the conclusion of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The multi-organization collaboration — which included singers from the Booker High School Choir, Sarasota Choral Society, Sarasota Jewish Chorale and Sarasota Young Voices; musicians from the Chroma Quartet and the Sarasota Orchestra; and dancers from the Sarasota-Manatee Dance Alliance — brought together more than 150 artists for a rendering of composer Sheridan Seyfried's five-part cantata of the same name, based on 22 songs sung in the ghettos and concentration camps during World War II.
Producing something on such a grand scale is fraught with challenges and this 90-minute performance, conducted by Gloria Musicae's artistic director Joseph Holt, did not escape a few minor flaws. But they were largely overshadowed by the magnitude of assembled talent, the haunting beauty of the score and the emotional impact of the subject matter.
Veteran broadcast journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who has been involved in both the civil rights movement and anti-apartheid movements, delivered timely opening remarks, referencing recent racial slurs allegedly made by L.A. Clippers' owner Donald Sterling that demonstrate discrimination is hardly a thing of the past.
Then the curtain opened to the impressive ensemble and dancers clad in simple everyday wear in muted shades of brown, red and purple. As the sonorous opening, "The World is Burning," began, a video screen dropped down to display photos of burning buildings, war's devastation and oppressed peoples from multiple cultures.
Despite the heaviness of the topic, the score was not relentlessly funereal, ranging from playful folk-flavored melodies to the defiant, triumphal finale, "Never Say This is the Final Road for You." There was nary a glitch in the purity and pitch of the choral ensemble, nor the orchestral accompaniment and the exceptional soloists — Stella Zambalis, soprano; Carol Sparrow, mezzo-soprano; Jason Collins, tenor; and Jason Stearns, baritone — deserve special kudos.
With 20 dancers, ranging in age from 6 to mid-50s and in technique from promising to professional, choreographer Liz Bergmann had her work cut out for her. For the most part, she succeeded admirably in producing an engaging visual counterpart — the first time in a dozen performances of this score that dance was included. However, the duration, the similarity of much of the music, and the theme produced an excess of repetition, with lots of running, reaching arms, clasped hands praying.
The most effective sections were the simplest — a hand-to-hand human chain, twisted like a tortured rope; 6-year-old Alexis Burnette Skowronski playing with her doll as her (real life) mother, Kelly Burnette, looked on; an agonizingly slow procession with lit candles; and the final centered cluster of dancers holding pairs of shoes aloft.
Those who didn't take home the thick program to peruse at leisure, missed a wealth of wisdom in the extensive program notes by Philip A. Klein, which included song lyrics and sources, Holocaust information and thoughts on discrimination from several participants.
An hour and a half is a long time to sit without interruption, but "Voices" was worth the endurance. While philosopher George Santayana's quote — "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" — may be overused to the point of banality, reminders such as this one are as vital as ever.
'VOICES OF THE HOLOCAUST,' Gloria Musicae, with the Booker High School Choir, Sarasota Choral Society, Sarasota Jewish Chorale, Sarasota Young Voice, Chroma Quartet and dancers from the Sarasota-Manatee Dance Alliance. Reviewed at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall April 28; no additional performances.