“The English and Bulgarian voices rose together, with a few Hebrew phrases thrown in, to create a sound at once exotic and deeply familiar.”
Sharon Tchonev, the Israeli granddaughter of Bulgarian Holocaust survivors, did not fully understand the emotional resonance of her family’s story until she married her husband, Kalin, a Bulgarian man.
Her maternal grandparents were among the 49,000 Jews saved when the Bulgarian people refused to let them be sent to Treblinka in what was the single largest non-deportation of Jews in World War II.
But before that rescue, Bulgaria had failed to speak up for 11,000 Jews who were sent to the Treblinka death camp. Bulgaria, which interned Jewish citizens in labor camps, is left with a complicated history rarely discussed. Sharon, whose family rarely spoke of the Holocaust, learned the details from Kalin’s parents.
The Tchonevs wanted to honor the Bulgarian people for this rescue. In 2008, they established Songs of Life as a division of Varna International, Kalin’s large-scale music festival organization.
Songs of Life’s inaugural event was a four-city concert tour in Bulgaria and Israel. The Tchonevs organized the distribution of 49,000 flowers in five Bulgarian cities, a gesture of thanks for every saved life. Their second production, “A Melancholy Beauty,” a choral-orchestral retelling of the rescue, premieres Tuesday at the Kennedy Center before traveling to the Wang Theatre in Boston and Lincoln Center in New York.
The show features more than 300 performers, including the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and the Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble from Bulgaria. Kalin calls it “a heavenly mission.”
Composer Georgi Andreev combined Bulgarian instruments, such as the gadulka and the kaval, with the style of classical symphonies. He produced a piece with “an absolutely new sound. I can say this work is a kind of bridge between East and West.”
On Sunday night at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, choral director Henry Leck conducted a choir rehearsal.
“You can’t figure out what is going on in your country,” he explained to the alto section. “We’ve become hysterics. Have we gone absolutely mad?”
Although most of the room was filled with members of American choirs, the singers from Bulgaria, just landed and jet-lagged, occupied a row in the back. The English and Bulgarian voices rose together, with a few Hebrew phrases thrown in, to create a sound at once exotic and deeply familiar. It is beautiful music for violent imagery: “We’ll not tremble with cowardice, silenced by fear.”
“Word and music is the most powerful union,” Kalin said. He speaks with a Bulgarian accent; in his voice alone, this past is ever present. “That is where you can deliver a message in the most emphatic way.”