Musical tribute to Bialystok’s Jews

ELENA Kats-Chernin is anxious about Remembering Bialystok, her new work for piano and cello. “Please mention that there will be two performances that day,” she urges.

Banish any thoughts of self-promotion. With her glowing international reputation and virtually back-to-back commissions, the Sydney-based composer has no need to plug her talents.

What concerns her is the importance of alerting the Jewish community to the piece she will perform with acclaimed cellist Nathan Waks at A Concert to Remember Bialystok on Sunday, August 17 in the intimate setting of the Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre.

Commissioned by the Leo and Mina Fink Fund – named for the late, legendary couple who helped numerous Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives in Australia – Remembering Bialystok is in memory of that north-eastern Polish city’s Jewish community, 50,000-strong at the start of World War II, which was almost wiped out by the Nazis, though not without a fight: the heroic, if doomed, Bialystok Ghetto Uprising took place in August 1943.

“I felt a special responsibility with this commission,” says Kats-Chernin. “It’s so important to keep the memory of those who died and I was also conscious that my piece would be very close to the hearts of the Fink family, as Leo and Mina were originally from Bialystok.

”It starts with two repeated notes, like the ticking of a clock to mark the passing of time, and develops in a way most people probably won’t expect.

“Jewish music is full of optimism and resilience, and Remembering Bialystok pays tribute to the hopeful nature of the human soul. I didn’t want a heavy veil over it. It’s like a musical tear – emotional, yet conveying lightness.”

For the two afternoon concerts, cellist Waks – whose father was born in Bialystok – will team up with Kats-Chernin for Remembering Bialystok and also perform his own composition Bialystok Memories.

At 56 and the mother of three grown sons, Kats-Chernin is an ongoing phenomenon whose output – for orchestra, theatre, ballet and chamber ensemble – is astonishingly prolific and versatile.

Her two collaborations with Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard alone established her as a major talent. For the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, millions around the world gazed in wonderment as child star Nikki Webster frolicked in the Great Barrier Reef in Deep Sea Dreaming, the work created and directed by Tankard and set to Kats-Chernin’s magical music.

Then there was her score for Tankard’s Wild Swans, premiered by the Australian Ballet at the Sydney Opera House in 2003.

“I think that’s the best work I’ve ever done,” says the composer. “It was incredibly satisfying.”

It was also incredibly successful, not least thanks to British bank Lloyd’s TSB, which used the captivating Eliza’s Aria from Wild Swans for a series of animated TV and cinema advertisements that received endless airplay.

Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Kats-Chernin studied music and figure-skating from the age of four, and at 14 she left home to study at the Gnessen Musical College in Moscow.

“I lived in a hostel with other students and often we had little more than bread and milk, but we shared everything including a piano and I loved it. I had an amazing education in Russia,” she recalls.

It continued at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music after Kats-Chernin migrated to Australia with her family in 1975. She was 17 and got a warm welcome from her father’s sister, who had settled in Sydney after a career as a concert pianist.

“I felt so free! I was able to use my aunt Maya’s Steinway and – amazing to me at that time – could make photocopies of my work instead of writing everything by hand.”

In 1980 Kats-Chernin moved to Germany to further her studies. Since returning to Australia in 1994, she has chalked up numerous triumphs – most recently, the 2014 Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award, shared with playwright Daniel Keene.

The prestigious prize, worth $50,000, reflects a formidable international career whose latest highlights have included adapting  Monteverdi’s three great operas, Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea, for the Komische Oper Berlin under the direction of Australian director Barrie Kosky.

A couple of other spectaculars have since taken shape. “My new 80-minute opera George – the name refers to George Frideric Handel who worked in the court of King George 11 – is about to have its premiere in Germany and currently I’m doing The Divorce for Opera Australia,” reveals Kats-Chernin.

“It’s a chamber opera for television and Joanna Murray-Smith has written the libretto. I can’t say more than that about The Divorce. It’s strictly under wraps!”

A Concert to Remember Bialystok is at the Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, on August 17 at 3.30pm and 5.30pm. Bookings: www.melbournerecital.com.au.

REPORT by Zelda Cawthorne

PHOTO of composer Elena Kats-Chernin