November 9 was the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the violent pogrom that ignited the systematic eradication of European Jews. November 11 was Armistice Day, marking the cessation of hostilities in World War I. It was an excellent idea for the Vector Wellington Orchestra under Marc Taddei, along with the Wellington Holocaust Research and Education Centre, to commemorate these events with two very different requiems.
Israeli composer Boris Pigovat’s Holocaust Requiem was written in honour of his grandparents, who were among the 100,000 or more slaughtered at Babi Yar near Kiev in 1941, the worst single massacre of Jews. His initial intention – to create a choral work, a Jewish lamentation with the shape of the Christian requiem mass – became instead what he calls “a tragic orchestral piece in the form of a concert-symphony for viola and orchestra”.
There is no text, but the contours of the requiem’s Latin words are clearly discernible in various instrumental solos. It is a work of great intensity and vividly straightforward in its graphic depiction of ghastly events: gunshots, breaking glass, the tumbling of bodies into the Babi Yar ravine, falling tears.
There are plenty of thunderous percussion and aggressive brass, screeching discords of horror and a diabolical danse macabre, but the work is at its most haunting when only a few instruments are playing together. And throughout can be heard the plangent keening of the solo viola, part of huge virtuosity magnificently played by Donald Maurice, who knew how to exploit the instrument’s full tonal palette.
Unsurprisingly, the Holocaust Requiem has a nod or two at Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, also on the theme of the Babi Yar murders, while the solo string writing owes something to Bloch as well as traditional klezmer music.
But Pigovat, who was present at this month’s concert, has gathered all this together into something quite original and deeply felt, with all the immediacy of a brilliant film score but with no need for pictures. The quiet serenity of the ending, drifting along with viola and celeste, was extraordinarily moving: peace after violence and the hope of better things for humanity.
Such an emotionally charged work as Pigovat’s would be a hard act to follow, but it proved a hard one to precede also. Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem, an essentially secular work offering comfort to the living as much as grief for the dead, might have worked as a foil, a gesture of reconciliation and German atonement for Nazi atrocities. The Orpheus Choir, with soloists Jenny Wollerman and Jared Holt, joined the VWO for the first half, but it seemed most available energy was saved for the second. The mighty Requiem is not an easy work to bring off, and this performance was oddly unengaging.
CONCERT OF REMEMBRANCE, Vector Wellington Orchestra, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, November 9.