TORONTO – A concert this evening will interpret children’s Holocaust poetry through music composed by modern-day youngsters.
“The Holocaust was a tragedy that also happened to children, many of them very young, for no other reason than who they were,” said Zachary Ebin, artistic director for The Sound of Silent Voices. “We are trying to revive the voice of a child, and it made sense for a child to do it, because they were children, and because as sophisticated as the poetry was for their age, the poetry is very much the work of a child.”
The performance, at Beth Lida Forest Hill Synagogue, will feature 13 pieces of two to five minutes each. The original compositions will be performed by Toronto’s Ton Beau String Quartet, and remarks will be given by Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, of Beth Avraham Yosef of Toronto synagogue, while Holocaust survivor Gershon Willinger, a Torontonian, will narrate the poems.
Ebin, a local music educator who has taught across North America, first conceived the idea of matching music with verse about three years ago, after reading I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which collects drawings and poems by children in the Terezin ghetto. Almost all the authors perished in the Holocaust.
“I was looking into what I could do with this very powerful book,” he said. “I was looking to engage people in what happened to children during the Holocaust, but more than the numbers and dates and locations – what they experienced. Despite their awful circumstances, they were still engaging in art and making sense of what was happening to them.”
Ebin struggled to find musicians for the project. Colleagues were of little help – they could recommend few students with the musical chops and emotional maturity.
“It’s so unusual to find kids who can compose,” he said, “and we needed kids who could compose at a high enough level. Also, the poetry is very dark and heavy, so we needed kids who could handle that material.”
The final group ranges in age from nine to 20. Most of the 14 composers – two partnered on one of the pieces – hail from Toronto, three from Philadelphia, one from Cleveland and one from Waterloo, Ont. One or two are Jewish.
While he has heard only some of the compositions, Ebin is impressed, but not necessarily surprised, given the calibre of the musicians.
“If you didn’t know they were written by children, you wouldn’t know. They are sophisticated enough that they sound like real compositions, not like little ditties. The compositions vary quite a bit. They tend to be quite dark, like the poetry itself. Some just reflect the general mood of the poem, but in some of them, specific parts of the piece reflect specific lines of the poem.”
Instead of assigning poems to composers, Ebin asked them to choose a favourite poem. The students responded by investing in the project.
“They understand that they have the responsibility of reviving the voices of kids who were silenced,” he said, “the responsibility to represent the voice of the child, and they are taking the task to heart.”
Parents, he said, have appreciated the opportunities for psychological growth the unusual project offers.
“They feel that it gives kids a way to handle a difficult subject. The beauty of instrumental music is that it’s just abstract, so it provides an emotional outlet.”
The concert is the first step in what Ebin hopes is a larger venture, the Silent Voices Project. He is scouting venues in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland to repeat the Toronto concert, and if sufficient funds are raised, the next performance cycle will begin in the fall.
Ultimately, he wants to present another round of concerts, using different instruments and adding some new composers.
‘I would like to have a large variety of chamber music available [to perform],” he said. “Eventually, I would really like to have an orchestral concert.”
The Sound of Silent Voices will take place June 16, at Beth Lida Forest Hill Synagogue at 8 p.m. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.