Category Archives: News

Lucid Culture Reviews STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME

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A Holocaust Story with a Happy Ending?
Lucid Culture Blog, May 2, 2013

It’s a story straight out of Hollywood, except that it’s true. Jaap Polak survived the Nazi death camps with his wife and his girlfriend – barely. Tuesday night at the Jewish Theological Seminary auditorium, their improbable story was brought to life in chilling detail in a semi-staged performance of the new opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with music by Gerald Cohen and book by Deborah Brevoort. The narrative, vividly portrayed via both music and dialogue, is rich with cruel irony and grim humor but also the irrepressible joie de vivre that kept Polak, his wife Manja and girlfriend Ina alive despite staggering odds against them. It has a happy ending, which at this performance moved several audience members to tears.

Jaap Polak, now 100, and his wife Ina, now 90, reside in Scarsdale, and attend the congregation where Cohen is cantor, a connection that springboarded the opera. Both husband and wife were in the audience, and remain sharp as a whistle. Two years from now, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. That such a thing would be possible considering that the former Amsterdam residents were kidnapped by the Nazis, first sent to the Westerbork transit camp and then on to Bergen-Belsen in 1944 defies the imagination. Beth Greenberg’s stage direction was understated and fit the material – one doesn’t expect dancing in a piece about the Holocaust. Baritone Robert Balonek was fervent and winningly steadfast in his portrayal of the irrepressible Jaap. Soprano Ilana Davidson radiated hope against hope that transcended the aptly drab costuming (everyone has a yellow Star of David pinned to their coats). Among the supporting cast, soprano Cherry Duke brought a sardonic edge to her role as semi-reliable interlocutor, passing furtive love notes between Jaap and Ina.

Cohen’s music follows a natural, conversational rhythm, and because of that, must be murderously difficult to play. Perhaps with a nod to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble Cohen pulled together – clarinetist Vasko Dukovski, cellist Chris Finckel, violinist Sasha Margolis and pianist Lynn Baker – rose to the occasion, nimbly conducted by Ari Pelto. The vocal melodies are not particularly cantabile, which makes sense considering the overwhelming sense of impending doom that settles in with the opening scene in Amsterdam, a party that quickly goes to hell when the Nazis show up and abduct Ina’s boyfriend Rudi (portrayed by baritone Nils Neubert as a comforting figure who recurs to Ina in surreal, dreamlike interludes) and take him off to be murdered. For the most part, Cohen eschews fullscale horror in favor of a bleakly monochromatic, relentless unease, waiting until the cast arrives at Belsen to let the strings rise with a Bernard Herrmann-esque, shivery terror. Cohen’s cantorial background informs and enriches the larger-scale choral segments, notably a mesmerizingly hypnotic, intricately contrapuntal crescendo toward the end which interpolates a triumphant Passover theme within murky, brooding, enveloping sonics. His characterization of the Nazis works mechanical, coldly monotonous circular motives: the banality of evil captured in sound.

Brevoort powerfully evokes the sheer surrealism and the increasing sense of dehumanization and despair that befalls the cast, but also moments where humanity emerges triumphant when least expected. Lisette, who at first betrays the burgeoning affair between the two lovebirds, has a change of heart and becomes their ally again, enabling Ina, who’s been given a menial job in the commandant’s office, to steal a pencil for Jaap so that he can continue to write her clandestine letters. The affair between them unwinds with not a little suspense, especially since Jaap’s wife and Ina’s father are both in the camp and prove to be a considerable impediment. In particular, the character of Manja is underwritten. The implication that she was a shrew with a wandering eye doesn’t go very far, and the reality – as Jaap Polak emphasized in a brief address to the audience afterward – is that she was the unsung heroine of this twisted adventure, nursing him back to health from a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever and then handing him off to Ina to live happily ever after. She deserves better. Somewhere there’s a circus rock band who ought to do the song “I Lost My Husband to a Rich Younger Woman in a Nazi Death Camp.”

As far as getting the message of this piece across, it would work better as a musical than an opera, which is not to say that Cohen should rewrite it as Springtime for Hitler. As it is now, the lyrics are likely more easily understood by regular operagoers than by general audiences: all too often, a particular nuanced moment, a shift in the plotline or even a punchline get lost in arioso vocal pyrotechnics. Considering the talent of the cast onstage, it’s a good gamble that they’d be equally capable of rendering the story in a more musically accessible, less stylized manner. Those who buy into the argument that in the age of microphones and vocal individualism, the bel canto style of singing has reached the end of the line, will probably agree with that statement. Those who don’t probably won’t. And it’s an argument that’s probably academic, anyway, since where this is ultimately bound is most likely the big screen. Steven Spielberg, are you out there?

The Journal News Preview of “Steal a Pencil For Me”

Opera shares Eastchester couple’s romance in concentration camp

by Julie Moran Alterio

Whether it’s “Aida” or “The Hunger Games,” a love triangle makes for enduring drama.

The real-life tale of an Eastchester couple caught in a love triangle while struggling to survive inside Nazi concentration camps is the inspiration for a new opera with music by a Yonkers composer.

“Steal a Pencil for Me” is the third telling of the story of Jack and Ina Polak, married for 67 years.

“We had first a book, then the movie documentary. When he came with the opera, my reaction was, ‘And what then? The musical?'” Ina Polak said with a laugh directed at Gerald Cohen, cantor at Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale and a friend of the couple’s for 25 years.

Cohen, whose music is paired with a libretto by New York City writer Deborah Brevoort, came to the Polaks with his idea three years ago.

“They both encouraged me to write it quickly,” he said, noting that Jack is 100 and Ina is 90.

The chance to tell a true story with as many twists as the most enthralling fictional opera appealed to Cohen, who composed two other operas with biblical themes.

“The Holocaust was an incredible, horrible huge historical event, but at the same time there were people who were able to live through it and fully embrace their humanity and love for each other,” Cohen said.

The story opens in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam when Jack (also known as Jaap) Polak, a 30-year-old struggling accountant in a rocky marriage, falls in love at first sight with Ina Soep, 10 years younger and from a well-off family. That encounter at a birthday party in the spring of 1943 might have been it for the couple but for being assigned the same barracks at the Westerbork transit camp later that year.

Polak had agreed to stay married to his wife, Manja, during the war to improve their chances of survival. That didn’t stop him from courting Soep through love notes they continued to exchange, even when both were sent to the harsher Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany the following year.

In one of the missives, Polak begs Soep to “steal a pencil for me,” inspiring the title of their book of collected letters, translated by their daughter Margrit and published in 2000.

The letters were a way for the couple to picture a life beyond the camp, where an “ordinary breakfast” with real coffee, buttered toast and juice would be normal. That wish is the subject of one of the arias in the new opera.

“We were trying to figure out how to show Ina and Jaap’s hopes for the future, and we found this letter where Jaap talks about ‘I imagine us in the future having an ordinary breakfast together.’ The librettist turned it into this beautiful duet,” Cohen said.

Singer Robert Balonek, who plays Jack, said preparing for the role has been emotional.

“It took me a couple of times to read through it to sing along because it was just so moving,” he said. “It’s rare that an opera singer gets to meet and interact with someone who they are playing.”

Ilana Davidson, who plays Ina, said the story shows that something beautiful can bloom amid horror.

“It’s an honor, but it’s also a gift to be able to put yourself in a situation through music that’s happened so recently and that’s so important never to forget,” she said.

After liberation, the Polaks found each other in 1945 in Amsterdam. Jack divorced Manja, who died in 2005, and Soep learned that her boyfriend from before deportation had been killed. The couple were married in January 1946 and moved to the United States in 1951. They have three children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

In his new home country, Jack Polak helped found the Anne Frank Center USA, where he is chairman emeritus. He was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1992 to honor him for his work telling the story of the Holocaust.

That impulse to share his story is what prompted him to agree to the opera.

“When the cantor came to me for the opera, I said no,” Jack Polak recalled. “Then I said, ‘Really, this is such a unique thing to find two people who survived under the most unbelievable circumstances,’ and to make an opera of it, I accepted it.”

What makes such stories of the Holocaust so powerful is their foundation in true events, said Ela Weissberger, an 82-year-old survivor from Tappan whose own childhood as a star of the opera “Brundibar” while captive at Theresienstadt camp has been widely chronicled.

“It has to be something that is true, even in music,” Weissberger said.

Millie Jasper, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains, said the opera shares a “story of survival.”

“I had the pleasure of listening to a few of the arias at a Holocaust commemoration a few weeks ago,” she said. “I think people will be drawn to it.”

Cohen, mindful that not everyone is an opera fan — and here Ina Polak raises her hand with a smile — said his work is accessible to general audiences.

The two-hour production is semi-staged with nine soloists and a chorus of eight singers backed by a four-piece instrumental ensemble. The costumes are simple with Jews represented by yellow stars and Nazis wearing arm bands.

“This is a much more intimate venue than, say, the Metropolitan Opera, so they’ll be up close to the singers and get the dramatic impact,” Cohen said, adding: “It’s in English, so they’ll be able to understand the words.”

New Photos from Yom Hashoah Ceremony in Scarsdale

These photos (by Arthur Glauberman) are from a Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony in Scarsdale, NY, Sunday April 7, 2013. Ilana Davidson, playing the role of Ina, and Robert Balonek, as Jaap, performed two excerpts from Gerald Cohen and Deborah Brevoort’s opera Steal a Pencil for Me. And for the first time, the real-life Jaap and Ina met their operatic counterparts.


from left, Ilana Davidson, Ina Soep Polak, Jaap Polak, Gerald Cohen, Robert Balonek


The Courier-Journal Reviews Voces Novae Concert

Review by Andrew Adler

For Frank A. Heller III, every concert describes a small journey of inner space. Voces Novae, the chorus he trains and nurtures season after season, looks first to the spirit present within each of its singers, and by extension his audiences. It’s no exaggeration to call Heller’s perspective a pan-theistic, summoning faiths of all persuasion to share his listening ground. …

David A. Lipp, cantor of Louisville’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun, was the stylistically idiomatic soloist in several pieces by Cohen – himself a cantor in suburban New York. “Hinei Mah Tov/Sha’alu Sh’lom Y’rushalayim” mingled texts from Psalms 133 and 122 to luscious effect. Later on, three brief movements from Cohen’s Passover cantata “And You Shall Tell Your Child” articulated its intergenerational narrative through utterly simple means.

Clarinetist Dallas Tidwell and cellist Wendy Doyle were welcome participants as well; pianist Deanne Hardy was the afternoon’s skilled sympathetic accompanist. But it was the chorus, inevitably and rightly, that captured principal honors of the day. “Dayeinu!” declared yesterday’s finale – “Enough!” Well, after a bare hour’s worth of music, I wasn’t thinking “dayeinu” – I wanted more, more and more.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Reviews the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival

Review by Eric Haines

Hebrew liturgy provides blessings for every major event in the Jewish life cycle. Blessings for children, weddings, the Kaddish, the Kol Nidre and the Song of Solomon have inspired composers to write works that deserve a place on the concert stage. The Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival ended its three-concert season on Tuesday evening in Levy Hall at Rodef Shalom Congregation with “Songs for the Seasons,” a program of richly impassioned compositions depicting major aspects of Judaica.

It may be over-simplifying, if not demeaning, to say that a goal of instrumentalists is to sing through their instruments, but that’s exactly what the players did. Samuels created the pastoral atmosphere of Gerald Cohen’s shimmering setting of Psalm 23. GingrasRoy was superbly evocative in Max Janowski’s “Avinu Malkeinu,” a fantasy on a High Holidays chant. Manriquez gave a clinic, mastering a wide range of expression and styles throughout the concert. …

Another mega-moment came from Cohen’s mini-cantata, “V’higad’ta L’vincha (“And You Shall Tell Your Child) and Dayeinu, “It would have been enough.” In his program notes, Cohen explains that he based the work on selections from the Haggadah, the central text of the Passover celebrations, stating, “we all must experience the story of the deliverance from slavery as if we ourselves had lived through it; we must then tell our children that story.”

The work begins with a chant-like motif, then moves through the oppression of slavery to the joy of deliverance, which is expressed in the lively dance setting of the Dayeinu. Goldstein, Soroka, Samuels, Zelkowicz and Manriquez rocked.

Generations Liner Notes

by Michael Kannen

We remember and we imagine.  We memorialize the past and nurture hopes for the future.  We use tradition as raw material for the new and the innovative.  These ideas are the motivating forces in Gerald Cohen’s music.  He is a composer, but he is also a cantor, a teacher, and a parent.  All of these pursuits involve a passing on of traditions- musical, religious, family- so that others may carry them into the future.

From life comes art, and so it is natural that the pieces on this disc are all, in one way or another, involved with the idea of tradition passed on.  There are contemporary settings of traditional Jewish texts.  There is a memorial to a late father and a blessing for a young child.  Even the musical building blocks- the forms and the language- reflect an engagement with tradition, making new ideas comprehensible by their relationship to the old.

Cohen avidly weaves together several different traditions, including the “classics” of western music (especially the music of Beethoven and Brahms); the musical traditions of the twentieth century (some crucial composers in that regard are Mahler, Bartok, Britten  and Copland); the traditions of Jewish texts; and the traditions of Jewish liturgical and secular music.  His comprehensive knowledge of Western art music informs his specifically Jewish works, and the echoes of his cantorial training and his cultural heritage appear, as if inevitable, in his pure concert music.   His music reflects all of these traditions, creating a musical voice that is distinctly his own.

In the end, however, a musical work does not succeed because of its origins or preoccupations. Gerald Cohen’s music succeeds so beautifully because it lives and breathes with vitality, energy, tenderness and sincerity.

The two chamber works on this recording are large-scale compositions, deeply felt and expertly crafted.  Both pieces consist of three movements which are motivically connected and which build from movement to movement to form a compelling whole.   The Trio for viola, cello and piano was composed in 1999 for the performers on this recording.   The composer writes,  “One important inspiration for this piece came from the challenge of writing for this combination of instruments, which differs from the ‘standard’ piano trio by replacing the more usual violin with the viola.  The great advantage of this combination is the focus on the beautiful warmth and particular intensity of the viola and cello, and the wonderfully close relationship between the sounds of these lower strings.”

The work is in three uninterrupted movements, with a central scherzo surrounded by slow movements.   The principal ideas of the entire piece are heard early in the first movement: the quiet chords and repeated notes of the opening, the melancholy theme heard in the viola soon after, and finally the more energetic theme in the cello later in the movement.   That theme eventually transforms into the main theme of the scherzo, a movement featuring Cohen’s love of lively shifting metrical patterns.  The last movement, in which a sense of quiet calm slowly builds to a return of the previous movements’ passions, ends with melting poignancy.

Many of Cohen’s vocal works, including the two heard here, are settings of Jewish liturgical texts, but are as suited to the concert hall as to the synagogue.  The Four Songs on Hebrew Texts are among the many of the solo settings that he has composed, often originally for himself to sing, and it is a special feature of these recordings to hear Cohen both as composer and performer.   Two of the songs were inspired by deeply personal events.   The melody of Y’varech’cha, with the mood of a lullaby, was originally written in 1995 on the birth of his son, Daniel.  The text is a blessing used on many different occasions, together with a special blessing usually recited for one’s children at the beginning of the Sabbath.  Adonai Ro’i is a setting of Psalm 23 and was written in 1989 for the funeral of a close friend.  The text of this Psalm is mainly a poem of comfort, with only a single, vague reference to death, but it has always been used in Jewish liturgy as a funeral/memorial psalm.  The setting heard here is the original one, but the song has also become widely known in versions for chorus, children’s chorus, and voice and orchestra.

In contrast to the personal genesis of these first two songs, Ad Matai was commissioned in 1999 by the Cantors Assembly, with the text—Psalm 82—as a specific part of the commission.  Cohen says, “I was assigned to write a piece on this psalm, and then found myself strongly drawn to its dramatic and bitter cry for social justice.  The musical images came from the force of those words.”  The text of V’haarev Na comes from the early part of the daily morning service.  The song begins with a “recitative” section in a cantorial style, and then evolves into a meditative reflection of gratitude for God’s gift of Torah, and for our capacity to study and to learn.   Cohen explains that in writing V’haarev Na and Ad Matai,  “my aim was to use traditional cantorial elements, and then to expand the musical language in a way that still feels tied to that tradition. ”

V’higad’ta L’vincha (And You Shall Tell Your Child…) was commissioned in 1996 by the Syracuse Children’s Chorus, and is based on the text of the Passover Haggadah.  The Haggadah, or “telling,” is the text that is used at the Seder, the family meal–full of discussion, ceremony, and song—that is the central feature of the Passover celebration of freedom and rejoicing.

In a program note, the composer writes:  “One of the most significant themes of the Haggadah, emphasized in my choices of text for the piece, is that we all must experience the story of the deliverance from slavery as if we ourselves had lived through it; we must then tell our children that story so as to pass it down, vividly, from one generation to the next.  Children are thus the central figures in the Seder, and it seemed most appropriate to write a setting of the text for children’s chorus.

“The piece begins with a chant-like presentation of the biblical verse that instructs us to tell our children the story of the Exodus, and then moves, as does the Haggadah, from the oppression of slavery to the joy of deliverance.  That joy is expressed especially in the famous text Dayeinu  (“It would have been enough…”), set here as a lively dance, and in the final L’fichach, which gives thanks to God in a procession which grows from a quiet beginning to an exuberant conclusion.”

Cohen’s String Quartet No. 2 was commissioned in 1991 for the Franciscan String Quartet.  A composer writing a string quartet at the end of the 20th Century inevitably confronts the overwhelming traditions of that genre.   For Cohen,  “it was perhaps the pull of this tradition that led me to cast the first movement in sonata form–with its patterns of presentation, development and recapitulation—and also to have major and minor triads as important dramatic elements in a piece that is not tonal in the traditional sense. “   That formal structure is used in this movement to create an engaging, musically dramatic narrative that is by turns tender, playful, and intensely driving.  Also influenced by sonata form, the third movement is a whirling scherzo of runs and repeated-note figures, with some lyrical interludes and a central section that is a slower, whimsical dance.

It is in the central slow movement that other elements from Cohen’s life emerge.  This movement was composed as an elegy for his father.  It is based on a synagogue melody that he had written earlier for a central prayer of the Jewish High Holidays, Hineni  (“Here Am I”), in which the cantor expresses humility before God in being an emissary for the congregation.  Once again, Cohen’s varied roles as composer, cantor, and family member come together in this piece.  He says,  “I used this music to communicate my thoughts and feelings about the process of mourning, and about my father, who was and is essential to my connection with Judaism.”

Gerald Cohen’s music speaks to us through its ability to respond to the personal, translating these emotions through his musical craft into an art that is expressive, important and vitally alive. That is the touchstone of his work, and its connection to a living, ongoing tradition.

Scarsdale Reviews “Sarah and Hagar”

Bible story provides “fertile” material for new opera

by Debra Bannerjee

Neither Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, nor even the modern-day composer John Adams thought to do it, yet the age-old story was ripe for the plucking, juicy with drama and conflict, tragedy and a complicated love triangle, the thematic lifeblood of opera.  But Gerald Cohen, cantor of Shaarei Tikvah, the Scarsdale Conservative Congregation, did.  He is composing an opera based on the story of Sarah and Abraham and Hagar in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, and in doing so, he joins the ranks of American composers contributing to the new opera boom in the United States.  The first act of the composer’s opera-in-progress, “Sarah and Hagar.” will be presented in concert form at Shaarei Tikvah on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m.

Cohen, a composer of both concert and liturgical music, a cantor and performer, has been thinking about writing the opera for “a long time,” over 10 years.  The story is read aloud every year at Rosh Hashanah, he said, and his wife Caroline suggested the story would make a good opera.  “Although the sacrifice of Isaac [the son of Sarah and Abraham] is popular with composers, an opera is not in the repertoire,” Cohen said.

“A lot attracted me to it,” Cohen, a Yonkers resident, said.  “Intense personal drama, family, history, creation of a new people, aging, fertility, they’re all interesting in opera.”

In the story, Sarah and Abraham have been promised to be the ancestors of a new people, but they are old and childless.  Sarah decides the only way to have a son is by giving her maid Hagar as a concubine to her husband.  Hagar’s child Ishmael is greeted as an heir, but when Sarah miraculously gives birth 13 years later to Isaac, a conflict develops that has long-lasting consequences for their descendants. Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arab people; his half-brother Isaac was one of the first Jews.  Cohen’s opera presents “hope for reconciliation,”  Cohen continued, represented by Isaac and Ishmael coming together for the funeral of their father Abraham in the second act.

The first step toward composing the opera was finding Charles Kondek, the librettist.  Kondek, a director as well as a librettist, has among his credits the libretti for operas premiered by the New York City Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“We hashed out the story, worked out the details,” Cohen said.  “The Bible is told tersely.  We had to flesh out the characters, decide the back story.”

Kondek did a sketch of the libretto, and Cohen did a sketch of the music, including the big arias, such as the lullaby Sarah sings to the child she wishes for.  “You can have musical ideas,” Cohen explained, “but it has to fit the drama.  Words come first.” Cohen described his music as “passionate, lyrical, dramatic.”  The opera’s music has references to Jewish music, he said, but it’s not “Jewish-sounding in a simple way.”

Cohen, who is on the faculty of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, won the Westchester Prize for New Work two years ago for the choral piece “An Undaunted Heart—Songs of Elders,” performed by Harold Rosenbaum’s New York Virtuoso Singers.  He has been the cantor at Shaarei Tikvah for the seven years that it has been in existence, and before that at Genesis Agudas Achim in Tuckahoe, one of the two synagogues that merged in 1998 to form Shaarei Tikvah.  The congregation has been “very supportive” of his life as a composer, Cohen said, and “takes pride” in his work.

Cohen has been working seriously on “Sarah and Hagar” for the last two years.  Last year he finished the vocal score, and for the last few months has been working on the instrumentation.  And although his opera has an orchestra of only six players, “instrumentation is very much an important part of the process of creating the opera,” he said.

He has been rehearsing with the singers, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash as Sarah, soprano Ilana Davidson as Hagar and baritone Robert Gardner as Abraham, since January.  Two weeks ago pianist Linda Hall Gerson of the Metropolitan Opera was brought in.  The opera will feature an eight-member professional chorus as well as musicians Tanya Dusevic Witek, flute; Jo-Ann Sternberg, clarinet; Krystof Witek, violin; Lois Martin, viola; Eliot Bailen, cello. Michael Adelson is the conductor.  The first full rehearsals, held this week, took place at Temple Shaaray Tefila, 250 E. 79th St. in Manhattan, where a performance will be held Sunday, May 22, at 3 p.m.

The performance at Shaarei Tikvah will give the audience a chance to see a work in progress in an intimate setting.  After the performance, there will be a brief discussion between the audience, composer and performers.  Cohen will also have the opportunity to record the performance to show in hopes of getting a full production with an opera company.

“Composing is my life, but this is special for me,” Cohen said.  “Having my first performance of my first opera is an extraordinary experience.”