Arts concert review

Music for us in Terezín was a sanctuary

Premieres and performances of paintings, poetry, and personal experiences

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Pianist Simone Dinnerstein performs for a concert sponsored by the Terezin Music Foundation at Boston Symphony Hall.
Michael J. Lutch

Milad Yousufi's “Refuge,” Satie's Gnossienne No.3, Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s “Sanctuary,” Glass’s Etude No. 2, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960
Terezín Music Foundation
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein, Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Boston Symphony Hall
Oct. 8, 2018

One of the worst tragedies of modern classical music history was the ban of certain music during the Nazi regime. However, in the concentration camp in Terezín (now in the Czech Republic), music allowed those “stripped of their homes, citizenship, and rights” to find a “sanctuary,” even for a moment. As the gala concert began, Terezín Music Foundation Executive Director Mark Ludwig honored harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková, a survivor of Terezín and Auschwitz. Showing a drawing from Terezín in 1943, Ludwig described the secret piano, an instrument made of scraps and hidden in an attic, and the music played there. “To them, music was a sanctuary… What does ‘sanctuary’ mean to you?”

The first piece was performed by a string quartet comprised of members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The world premiere of “Refuge” by Afghan composer Milad Yousufi was accompanied by a poem written by Yousufi himself, titled “Refugee.” Growing up under the Taliban, he was once banned from music but since then has written many Afghan-influenced pieces. “Refuge” begins and brings back the motif of two short chords, either whole or arpeggiated, each followed by a silence and a riff of fast notes in rare harmonies and rhythms. It has a mysterious, nature-like quality to it, possibly from the well-controlled violins sounding almost like birds or exotic flutes. It also has an incredible use of silence and the instruments’ range.

From then on, it was a piano recital by American pianist Simone Dinnerstein, well-known for her interpretations. Her first piece, Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.3, was a soft, gentle piece with chords ringing out like raindrops.

The title piece of the concert, “Sanctuary,” premiered in the middle, with three paintings shown along with the performance. Composed by songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the movements of the piece are inspired by three paintings, two of which were painted by the composer’s parents, and the third by the pianist’s. The first movement, “Yellow Pool,” was Ravel-like, reminiscent of Jeux d'eau in smooth piano lines and chord progressions. “Gregory’s Party,” the second movement of the piece, was a lot more playful, with scales running up and down, the melody shifting between two hands, and huge changes in dynamics. The poster for the concert was the third movement, “Sanctuary,” made up of a simple yet pleasing melody with repeated chords building up. In that moment, I closed my eyes to a different world.

After an applause and a hug from the composer, Dinnerstein continued her beautiful performance with Philip Glass’s Etude No. 2. This piece started like a prelude with soft arpeggios, but quickly turned into a distinctly modern piece with heart-gripping chord progressions and ringing bass lines.

The final and longest piece was Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major, the oldest piece being performed. In a typically Romantic fashion, the four-movement piece was symphony-like, beginning with an announcement of the theme. The first movement was a travel through time, with sections that seemed like Debussy, Mozart, or Rachmaninoff. The next movements were all distinct not only by tempo but also by style. Finally, the fourth movement stood out with the fun, fast pace and the shifts between duple and triple meters after each musical phrase. Dinnerstein had an amazing control over the keys, and this piece highlighted her virtuosity.

The encore was a mystery, but it presented a melody played in soft flutters and in waves that shook the entire hall. As the melody came back down, approaching the “home” of the key, Dinnerstein stopped and left, almost as if she were expressing the tragedy of those in Terezín who were silenced in the middle of their lives.