Music composed during Holocaust to be performed at City of Asylum by Clarion Quartet
“They were musicians caught in this horrible era. They’re musicians just like us — they were in the middle of their careers."
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra member Tatjana Mead Chamis started playing the viola at 15 after switching from violin, which she began when she was 7.
But it wasn’t until she formed the Clarion Quartet in 2017 and started playing compositions the Nazi regime labeled as “degenerate music” that she found her true voice.
“[People say] ‘This is the best music I’ve never heard before,’” said Mead Chamis, 52, of Franklin Park. “I have found where I am going to make a difference in the musical world.”
Chamis and the rest of the Clarion Quartet will do just that on Monday, Feb. 6, when they perform in “Music In the Face of Malice” at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. The concert is free to attend in person and to stream online. It begins at 7 p.m.
In a performance expected to be, in the words of City of Asylum promoters, “poignant and artful,” the Clarion quartet will honor Karel Berman, Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Egon Ledeč and Viktor Ullmann, a group of musicians “encouraged” to write and perform at the concentration camp Terezín during World War II as propaganda for the Nazi regime.
The performance is set to include selections such as Haas’ “String Quartet No. 2,” with guest percussionist Thomas Wendt; Klein’s “String Trio”; and Ullman’s “Piano Sonata No. 1,” with guest pianist Dmitri Papadimitiou.
Clarion Quartet is Mead Chamis on viola, with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra members Marta Krechkovsky (violin), Jennifer Orchard (violin) and Bronwyn Banerdt (cello).
“Through a yearning to bring justice to creative voices that have been silenced, the group is dedicated to providing renewal, hope and healing through its music,” City of Asylum organizers said.
Mead Chamis said artists like Berman and Haas likely would reject the notion that they are somehow “Holocaust musicians.”
“They were musicians caught in this horrible era,” she told the Chronicle. “They’re musicians just like us — they were in the middle of their careers.”
“We want to bring out,” she added, “what’s amazing and beautiful and lasting about this music.”
Mead Chamis admits even she was not aware of many of the works that came out of Terezin. She was introduced to them through a patron who asked her to perform them.
“I heard some unbelievable works I couldn’t believe I didn’t know,” Mead Chamis said, adding that when the Clarion Quartet performs these pieces, they are “so well-received.”
One night in Dresden, when the Clarion Quartet was touring in Europe, Mead Chamis said the group made a side trip to the Terezin camp, through which some 139,000 people passed between 1939 and 1945.
It was a powerful experience to visit the place where there was both so much music and pain. They also performed Ullman’s “Third Quartet” there.
“We played it in the very barracks where the [original] concerts had taken place, in the camp,” Mead Chamis said.
Mead Chamis is not limiting herself, though, to the world of pieces written during the Holocaust.
In 2012, she spent a sabbatical year in Florianopolis, Brazil, with her daughter, twin boys and husband, Brazilian composer/conductor Flavio Chamis, according to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. While there, she performed, collaborated with Brazilian musicians and collected a substantial number of viola works by Brazilian composers, which are now part of a CD released in the U.S., “Viola Brasil.” The CD was recorded in Pittsburgh as well as São Paulo and Florianopolis.
A recent addition to the collection is a viola sonata written for Mead Chamis by Brazilian pianist and composer André Mehmari, which was nominated for a Grammy award in 2017. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.