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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 7 April 2008

Ruth Fazal: Oratorio Terezin, Divine Commission

by Wah Keung Chan / April 13, 2008

It all began with an act that is probably repeated everyday. Back in 1998, a friend, historian Peter Miller, lent a book to violinist Ruth Fazal saying “Maybe you’ll want to do something with it.” The book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of artwork and poetry written by children interned at the Nazi concentration camp Terezin from 1941-1945, touched Fazal but sat on her bookcase for a year. One day, she felt a strong urge to take it off the shelf, and thus began a two-and-a-half-year journey that resulted in the composition of Oratorio Terezin, a moving epic choral work in tribute to the Holocaust victims.

“It was a divine commission,” said Fazal. “I sensed God telling me that he wanted me to write a musical work, to take some of the poems and weave them with portions of the old Hebrew scriptures from the old Testament, to explore the question ‘Where was God in this tragedy?’ ”

Although an accomplished violinist and concertmaster in several Toronto orchestras, Fazal had never composed any formal music before and she started by picking 14 of the poems and text from the Old Testament. “I said to myself that I could do this, thinking that it would be a few little songs with piano accompaniment,” she explained. When she began to conceive the music, the project started to snowball. “I started with a children’s choir, and then I realized I needed an adult choir to bring in the adult response to suffering. I then needed a voice of God to express his heart in this, plus the voice of a prophet. Finally, to represent suffering I needed a very high soprano singing without words, sometimes with the children, sometimes with the prophet and other times with God,” she continued. Given these resources, Fazal realized that piano accompaniment would not suffice and she decided to include a symphony orchestra. “If I had known how big it was, I might never have embarked on it,” she said.

Ruth Fazal grew up in England, the daughter of a vicar. At a young age, she studied piano and violin but only became passionate about the violin in her teens. She was admitted to Dartington College of the Arts based on “strong musicianship”, but she worked hard to master the violin. “My teacher told me years later that I was the only student he misjudged, thinking that I’d never make it as a violinist,” she said. During these years, Fazal confessed to some composing: an arrangement of a Christmas carol at age 14 for her father’s service, several songs for guitar and voice “for my own amusement,” and a piece for trumpet and strings at Dartington. After graduate studies at Guildhall, Fazal studied violin in Paris before immigrating to Canada, settling in Toronto, where for the last 35 years, she’s played in almost every orchestra in the city.

Mapping out the text helped Fazal create the architecture of the piece. The very first words are “I remember” sung by God. “The word remember is very important to the Jewish people,” said Fazal. “For me, that is a huge message.” In setting the music to the words, Fazal had a lot of little ideas and motifs in her head. She explained, “The way I create best is spontaneously.” With two teenagers, she composed in snatches, a half an hour here and there in front of her keyboard, with the words in front of her, recording her playing and singing, which she eventually transferred to manuscript in piano reduction; from there she would use the Finale software to put it into orchestral format. “It was an intense two and a half years. There were some difficult times for me personally, and it seemed every emotion was magnified,” she reminisced.

Fazal decided to set the parts for children’s chorus in unison to keep the innocence while having pieces that kids would enjoy singing. “I heard a performance of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin sung by the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus and I wanted to recreate that sound and effect,” said Fazal.

How did she create the tension in the piece? “For me, it was both rhythmically and harmonically. I wanted to create a knife going through you in music. Technically, it was a very close cluster of chords moving all together in the same direction, never pulling apart. There is a constant tension in the piece between beauty and suffering, between hope and despair. To present one without the other is not a real presentation of life,” she answered. When asked if any composers influenced the work, she answered with Britten, Prokoviev and Elgar.

Part of the bargain during the composing process was that Fazal was not allowed to consult anyone else – it was to be a solitary endeavour. She went on, “I felt there was a clause not to visit the Holocaust museum and not to try to know more than you know now. I saw the work as more ‘where is God in human suffering.’ I didn’t realize it was going to be about Jewish suffering. I began to see that this was something to help people to find that place of hope. At the end of the process, something had happened inside me, there was a deepening of compassion and tenderness,” Fazal found herself in love with a group of people that she’d never met.

or a deeply religious and spiritual person, Fazal also had to resolve the question of where God was during all this. “The answer is ‘he is closer than you know,’” said Fazal. “I ask myself is there a purpose in suffering, is there a purpose in those dark times. The reality is that suffering is part of human existence. Will I choose to walk through those dark times with him or without him – that for me is the bottom line. I find with many of the survivors I’ve met, often when you dig deep down, there is an acknowledgement that God is looking after things.”

Before the first performance, Fazal wanted to play her violin in Terezin and Auschwitz. In Terezin, she came to a park where a chestnut tree stood, and she was reminded of one of the poems On a Sunny Evening, which talks of a chestnut tree: “If in barbed wire, things can bloom, Why couldn’t I? I will not die!” Fazal said, “For some reason, I couldn’t play my violin. Somebody had sucked everything out of me that was creative or expressive. I lay my violin on the grass, and I heard God say, ‘Play the cry you are feeling.’ I was finally able to make one note.” On the following day, Fazal went to Auschwitz. “I remember that it was so different as I walked in through the gates, and all I could think of was where the prophet sings ‘I will not keep silent.’ It was an incredible sense of mission. I was there to declare something. It was very quiet and when I stood on the tracks and played, I felt I was declaring something. The words kept coming to my mind was as if God was saying ‘I will make everything right.’ ”

Once Fazal completed the oratorio, she set about producing a premiere in Toronto, assembling a professional orchestra, adult choir and children’s chorus. A friend predicted that the work would be played in Europe and Israel. As it happens, her Dartington colleague, cellist Kirk Trevor had begun conducting in the US and in Europe, including Bratislava, and she enlisted him as the conductor. The premiere at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on November 1 and 2, 2003, were sold out and a complete success.

“The audience could feel that something important was going to happen,” said Vanier professor Erica Phare, who helped prepare the children’s choir in performances in Europe and New York. “I was moved by the defiant words of I Am a Jew; the purity of the children’s plea; the tenderness of the text sung by the Voice of God; the horrifying beginning of Who Has Believed? and the child-like joy of the final movement, which begins with a simple child’s melody. Issues of life, death, faith, prejudice, and hope are seen from the children’s eyes with response from an adult choir and soloists. I felt that if young people were to sing this, then it might move them to look at their own lives and the world around them with gratitude and empathy.”

After the performance, Fazal found herself $80,000 in the hole, putting the European tour in jeopardy. Shortly afterward, she received a call from a couple who had attended the premiere and who ran a small Christian foundation. “I was expecting to walk out of our meeting with a couple of thousand dollars, but I left with $160,000, enough to erase my debts, and almost enough for Europe which meant that I had to go,” she said.

The tours of Europe in 2004, Israel in 2005 and New York in 2007 have all been tremendously received. Each time, Fazal connected with Holocaust survivors.

Today, Fazal has found a new calling as a composer, while juggling her work as a violinist. While composing Oratorio Terezin, she created another piece based on The Seven Last Words of Christ. “I like to compose with text,” she said. “I’m currently writing a work for orchestra and chorus without text and it’s much harder.” n

› -Montreal premiere of Oratorio Terezin by Ruth Fazal. Vanier College Benefit Concert. Iwan Edwards, conductor, Erica Phare, choir director, Colin Ainsworth, tenor, Nathaniel Watson, baritone, Teresa Maria Gomez, soprano, Concerto Della Donna, Chśur des enfants de Montréal, Vanier College Choir, McGill Conservatory Youth Choir, Ensemble Amati, May 4, 2008, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts, 514-842-2112.

› -On the web: vaniercollege.qc.ca / oratorioterezin.com / ruthfazal.com

Working on this piece has been far more than just the music. It has been fascinating watching students connect with this work more and more as they have heard from Holocaust survivors; taken in Geordie Theatre’s Hana’s Suitcase; seen the Yaya production of No More Raisins, No More Almonds; initiated PowerPoint presentations on You Tube; watched the films Paper Clips and Freedom Writers; and spoken of their experience of working on this music in interviews with the press and on CBC’s Second Regard. After Mr. Hermann Gruenwald told the Vanier College Choir of his experience in Auschwitz, you could have heard a pin drop. When they went to sing for him the thunderous movement, I Am a Jew, they practically whispered it. It felt like they were still trying to process and digest all that he had just shared with them. But it was his message of hope, of finding meaning in his life despite his past hardships that seemed to speak so loudly.

- Erica Phare

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