Songs of Life Press Release
Musical event celebrates little known and uplifting story
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 performed for the first time in South Carolina after successful performances in New York, Washington D.C. and Boston, recounts how Bulgaria’s 49,000 Jews were saved from the Nazis by ordinary citizens, government and church officials.
The performances are being held in Charleston Nov. 2 and Columbia Nov. 3 in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the 1943 rescue.
Songs of Life will be performed 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 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 and the Wang Center in Boston.
A Melancholy Beauty is a creation of Varna International, a South Carolina-based organization that for 15 years has presented music festivals in Israel, Bulgaria, Austria, Greece, Turkey, the Czech Republic and Italy including at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. The organization is headed by husband and wife team Kalin Tchonev, a native of Bulgaria, and Sharon Tchonev, a native of Israel 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 and it seemed 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 performance of the musical Mama Mia in Berlin. Seated nearby was a group of mentally disabled people and he began reflecting on the fate of such people in Nazi Germany and how Bulgarians Jews had been saved from the death camps – including his wife’s family.
“I realized that if it were not for the miraculous rescue, I would not have my wife 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.”
They did so by commissioning composer Georgi Andreev and librettists Scot Cairns and Aryeh Finklestein to create A Melancholy Beauty.
Andreev, chief conductor of the State Folklore Ensemble, has written many works for chamber orchestra and piano and arranged 400 Bulgarian traditional songs. Cairns’ poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review and The 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 Orthodox Church, a pro-Nazi commissar, his private secretary who warned the Jews, and a political leader who opposed the deportation.
The performance will be conducted by Donald Portnoy, Music Director of the USC Symphony Orchestra and the Brevard (N.C.) Philharmonic and former Music Director of the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Opera Theater and the Pittsburgh Civic Symphony. He has frequently conducted the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and the Piccolo Festival Orchestra.
“Approaching Maestro Portnoy was a natural decision for us, as we always seek to work with a good local orchestra and 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 South Carolina productions 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. “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 they continued to arrive – from the Byzantine Empire around the year 800, from Bavaria in the 1300s, and Spain and Portugal around 1500. Although anti-Jewish sentiment arose from time to time in Bulgaria, 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 forth 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 to concentration camps, but left empty following protests and behind the scenes machinations by ordinary Bulgarians, Christian clergymen and certain government officials. (Nearly all Bulgarian Jews left the country after World War II most settling in Israel.)
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.”
7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 2. Charleston Music Hall, 37 John Street Charleston, SC. For tickets call 1-800-514-3849 or go to http://charlestonmusichall.com/events/
7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 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/
Songs of Life “A Melancholy Beauty” Highlights
Saturday, Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. Charleston Music Hall, 37 John Street Charleston, SC. For tickets call 1-800-514-3849 or go to http://charlestonmusichall.com/events/
Sunday, Nov. 3, 7 p.m. Koger Center for the Arts, 1051 Greene St. (at Assembly Street), Columbia, SC. $40 – $60. For tickets call (803) 251-2222 or visit http://www.capitoltickets.com/
Songs of Life Festival: A Melancholy Beauty is a musical event recounting the little-know story of how Bulgaria’s 49,000 Jews were saved from the Nazis by ordinary citizens, church and government officials. It is being performed to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1943 rescue.
The event brings together the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, the Philip Kutev National Folklore Ensemble of Bulgaria, University of Florida Chamber Choir, The Bach Festival Youth Choir and soloists. The performance will open with the award-winning film about the rescue, The Optimists, and a performance by the Folklore Ensemble.
Conductor Donald Portnoy is Music Director of the USC Symphony Orchestra and the Brevard (N.C.) Philharmonic, former Music Director of the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Opera Theater and the Pittsburgh Civic Symphony and principal guest conductor of the China Opera and Dance Symphony in Beijing and the Harbin Orchestra in China.
The world premiere was at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., followed by performances at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, both with the National Philharmonic, and the Wang Center in Boston with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
A Melancholy Beauty composer Georgi Andreev is chief conductor of the State Folklore Ensemble and has written works for ensembles, piano, orchestra, film and dance, arranged 400 Bulgarian traditional tunes and won the the Alfred Schnittke Prize for Piano Sonata.
Librettist Scott Cairns’ poems been published in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review and The New Republic and the anthologies Upholding Mystery (Oxford University Press), Best Spiritual Writing (Harper Collins) and Best American Spiritual Writing (Houghton Mifflin). Co-writer Aryeh Finklestein, cantor at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Massachusetts, has written the libretti for three full-scale oratorios, including Souls on Fire and Kings and Fishermen which were performed at Lincoln Center.
The work was organized and commissioned by Varna International, a concert production company based in Columbia, SC. The organization was founded 15 years ago by husband and wife Kalin Tchonev, a native of Bulgaria, and Sharon Tchonev, a native of Israel whose Bulgarian grandparents were among those saved. Varna International produces festivals and concerts and training programs in choral, orchestral and opera music throughout Europe, Israel, Turkey and the U.S. Varna International mounted a concert commemorating the rescue in Bulgaria and Israel in 2008. In Bulgaria, the organization handed out 49,000 flowers to thank them for their part in the rescue.
For more information go to https://songsoflife.org/