Arts and Culture | Local

TSO strings to perform at Yom HaShoah remembrance

Dutch composer Leo Smit

Sixteen members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra will perform the work of Leo Smit, a Dutch Jewish composer killed in the Holocaust, at the community’s annual Holocaust commemoration, “A Grave in the Air: A Musical Remembrance,” on Sunday, April 22.

Smit, who was of Portuguese descent, was born in Amsterdam in 1900. He spent the years between 1927 and 1937 in Paris, which was then the center of the music world. In 1937 he returned to Amsterdam, where he continued to work as a composer during the war. On April 27, 1943, he was transported to the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, where he was killed three days later.

“You can’t imagine what it must have been like as a Jew in 1943, in an occupied country, and he was writing all this music that was so beautiful, so open. It’s a very emotional, very moving idea,” says Jeff Hamburg, chair of the Dutch Composer’s Guild in Amsterdam, who also is Jewish. Hamburg arranged Smit’s unfinished String Quartet for string orchestra specifically for this program. Smit’s music, Hamburg told the AJP, is not depressing or aggressive: “It’s just really happy. You don’t hear the war in it at all.”

Hamburg, who is originally from Philadelphia, will travel to Tucson to attend the program, which will be held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, beginning at 2 p.m. German conductor Markus Huber also will travel to Tucson to lead the orchestra for this event. Huber has been guest conductor for TSO twice and has conducted various Holocaust related productions.

The event, organized by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Coalition for Jewish Education in partnership with the TSO, will focus on the enormity of the artistic loss that accompanied the destruction of European Jewry. Local artists representing a variety of genres will accompany Holocaust survivors during the processional and candlelighting ceremony, says Bryan Davis, CJE youth and Holocaust education coordinator.

“How do you remember the evil of the past in order to overcome evil with good in the future?” asks TSO viola player Melissa Hamilton, who organized the concert.

Although she is not Jewish, many of her teachers and mentors since elementary school have been Jewish, she notes, making her sensitive to issues of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, such as refusing to play Haydn’s “Emperor Quartet,” which was co-opted by the Nazis as an anthem.

Hamilton had begun researching stories of Holocaust survivors to explore how traumatic memories can be transformed into a tool for hope. Initially, she planned to hold a recital of music from the Holocaust to raise money for the museum at Auschwitz, but she soon connected with Davis and began working with him on the Yom HaShoah commemoration, enlisting fellow symphony members to participate.

Collaborating on the Yom HaShoah project has given her immense joy, says Hamilton. “And somehow this joy is contagious, and perhaps that is why so many other people accepted the invitation to be involved.”

Telling Leo Smit’s story through words and music, she says, is a way to give back his voice, to say “his life mattered. Every life matters.”

For more information, contact Davis at 577-9393, ext. 124 or