A largely unknown and uplifting event in the dark history of the Holocaust will be told through a concert that combines the musical forces of a full orchestra, a choir from Bulgaria, choirs from around the U.S., and soloists.
Songs of Life Festival: A Melancholy Beauty being per formed Sunday, November 3 at the Koger Center recounts how Bulgar ia’s 49,000 Jews were saved f rom the Nazis by ordinary ci t izens, and government and church officials. The performance commemorates the 70th anniversary of the 1943 rescue.
“Songs of Life” will be per formed by the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra augmented by Bulgarian folk instruments, the Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble of Bulgaria, University of Florida Chamber Choir, The Bach Festival Youth Choir, Young Sandlappers Singers, the Limestone College and Community Chorus, and several professional soloists. The centerpiece is “A Melancholy Beauty,” a new oratorio which had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., and has been performed at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York with the National Philharmonic and the Wang Center in Boston with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
“A Melancholy Beauty” is a creation of Varna International, a South Carol ina- based organization that for 15 years has presented music festivals throughout Europe, including at the Fest i va l of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and in Israel. The organization is headed by husband and wi fe team Kalin Tchonev, a native of Bulgaria, and Sharon Tchonev, whose Bulgarian grandparents were saved during the rescue. This is the first time the work has been presented in South Carolina.
“ We felt it was important to stage the production this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the rescue, anditseemed appropriate to bring it ‘home,’” Sharon Tchonev said.
The idea for “A Melancholy Beauty” came to Kalin Tchonev in an unusual place— while he was attending a per formance of the musical Mama Mia in Ber l in. Seated nearby was a group of mentally disabled people, and he began reflecting on the fate of such people in Nazi Germany and how Bulgar ians Jews had been saved f rom the death camps—including his wife’s family.
“I realized that if it were not for the miraculous rescue, I would not have my wi fe and son today,” Kalin Tchonev said. “We wanted to pay tribute to the brave people who stood up—ordinary people who arose to defy evil.”
The Tchonevs did so by commissioning composer Georgi Andreev and librettists Scott Cairns and Aryeh Finklestein to create A Melancholy Beauty.
Andreev, chief conductor of the National Folklore Ensemble, has written many works for chamber orchestra and piano and arranged 400 Bulgar ian t radi t ional songs. Cairns’s poems have appeared in The Atlant icMonthl y,The ParisReview, andThe New Republic, and he is the author of six poetry collections. Finklestein, cantor at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Massachusetts, has written the libretti for three oratorios.
“A Melancholy Beauty” combines classical choral-orchestral music with Bulgarian musical influences and traditional instruments such as the gadulka ( a type of lute) and kaval (flute). The soloists will perform the roles of several key players in the drama including King Boris, the head of the Or thodox Church, a pro-Nazi commissar, his private secretary who warned the Jews, and a political leader who opposed the deportation.
“It is a smart, confidently written, seduct ively at tract ive piece that weaves Bulgarian folk inst ruments and folk-singing styles into colorful scoring, a sound at once exot ic and deeply familiar,” wrote the Washington Post.
The works received a standing ovat ion in Washington and New York.
The per formance willbeconductedby Donald Portnoy, music director of the USC Symphony Orchestra and the Brevard (N.C.) Philharmonic and former music director of the Augusta Symphony Orchest ra, Pittsburgh Opera Theater, and the Pittsburgh Civic Symphony.
“ Approaching Maestro Portnoy was a natural decision for us, as we always seek to work with a good local orchestra. Kalin holds master’s degrees from the USC School of Music and was acquainted with Maestro Portnoy,” explained Sharon Tchonev. “He immediately embraced the idea.”
The production will open with a performance by the National Folklore Ensemble and The Optimists, a film about the rescue, will be shown. The movie won First Prize at the Jerusalem International Film Festival for Documenting the Jewish Experience and won an honorable mention award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
“Because the story isn’t widely known, we wanted to provide the audience with an understanding of the history that inspired ‘A Melancholy Beauty,’” said Sharon Tchonev, a native of Israel. “We can’t think of a better way than screening the 20-minute version of this beautiful and deeply moving film told from a personal perspective of what happened to the filmmaker’s family.”
Jewish presence in Bulgaria dates back 2,000 years, and although anti- Jewish sentiment arose from time to time, the community was largely well-accepted. An indication of the nation’s thriving Jewish life was the opening in 1909 of the Sofia Synagogue, the third-largest synagogue in Europe.
South Carolina also has rich but largely unknown Jewish history. The state’s charter provided for religious tolerance which attracted people of many faiths, and by 1800, South Carolina had the nation’s largest Jewish population. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, founded in 1749, is the country’s fourth oldest congregation and, in 1841, became the first American Reform congregation.
With the outbreak of World War II, Bulgaria sided with the Axis powers, and restrictive laws were placed on the Jewish population. In the spring and summer of 1943, trains began arriving to deport the Jews but left empty following protests and behind the scenes efforts by ordinary Bulgarians, Christian clergymen, and certain government officials.
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev addressed the rescue during the 100th anniversary of the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
“Against all odds, Bulgarians gave the world an unprecedented example of courage and humanity by making a moral choice in defiance of the greatest evil in history, the Nazis,” he said. “In the dark years of World War II … ordinary Bulgarian citizens, people from all walks of life placed their own lives at risk to peacefully, yet firmly, stand up for their fellow Bulgarians and forge a ‘human shield’ to protect their Jewish classmates, friends, and neighbors. Seventy years ago, the Bulgarian society saved not just its Jewish population, it also saved itself.”
The event is 7 p.m. Sunday, November 3. Koger Center for the Arts, 1051 Greene St. ( at Assembly), Columbia, SC. $40 – $60. For tickets call ( 803) 251- 2222 or visit http://www.capitoltickets.com/.