Mary Kouyoumdjian

Exploring Roma persecution in Shoah ‘Remembrance’ concert

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By Rob Gloster

SAN FRANCISCO (Jewish News of Northern California) — The Nazis’ murder of 220,000 Roma, or Gypsies, has always been a historical anecdote overshadowed by the extermination of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.

Mina Miller, president and artistic director of Music of Remembrance, wanted to focus on the persecution of Roma and decided it would be best told through the artwork and writings of Ceija Stojka, an Austrian Roma who survived internment at three concentration camps.

Miller was at a concert by the Kronos Quartet at UC Santa Barbara in December 2015 when she heard “Silent Cranes,” a multimedia work by composer Mary Kouyoumdjian commemorating the centennial of the Armenian genocide.

Miller immediately knew she had found the right person to create a piece about the Roma, but at first Bay Area native Kouyoumdjian was reluctant to take on the commission. Once she discovered Stojka’s work, she changed her mind.

“I didn’t really feel comfortable writing a piece about the Roma in the Holocaust because that’s not the community that I’m from,” Kouyoumdjian, 34, said in an interview from her home in Brooklyn, NY. “But I was comfortable writing about another artist. I really connected with her writings, and especially her paintings.”

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Kouyoumdjian’s composition, in a program titled “Mirror of Memory,” was performed Wednesday, May 24, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music — three days after the world premiere in Seattle. The program included San Francisco Opera mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook singing Yiddish songs written in the Vilna Ghetto.

Stojka, who survived the Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen camps, went on to write three autobiographies that focused on Nazi persecution of Roma. She began painting at the age of 56, and her artwork was heavily based on depiction of the death camps, where her father and one of her five brothers were killed. She died in 2013.

Miller, who founded the Seattle-based nonprofit Music of Remembrance, said she felt it was time to focus on the plight of Gypsies, who like Jews were deemed racially inferior by the Nazis and targeted for extinction.

Last year, Miller, the daughter of Holocaust refugees who lost all their family members, commissioned an opera by Jake Heggie that was based on the writings of a Polish dissident and a gay man. “When you think about the victims of the Holocaust — the 6 million Jews, the gays, the Gypsies, political dissidents, journalists — it’s been the goal of Music of Remembrance from the beginning to illuminate not just the tragedy of the Jews but others as well,” she said. Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian American who grew up in Pleasant Hill and now is working toward her doctorate in music composition at Columbia University, is a big fan of Roma music and said it’s similar to Armenian tunes.

Her 26-minute piece based on Stojka’s artwork, “to open myself, to scream,” is scored for violin, cello, bass, clarinet and trumpet. It includes live music and an electronic track recorded by the musicians, the latter symbolizing a survivor’s reflections on the past.

With Stojka, “There’s this constant burden of a horrific past. She’s sort of exploring these horrific things that make no sense,” Kouyoumdjian said. “A lot of people who have gone through genocide feel this too; they create artwork to express their feelings.”

Topics: Concert

The music is complemented with a film by Syrian Armenian projection artist Kevork Mourad, who animated Stojka’s artwork and synched it to the music.

Miller said this year’s focus on Roma will be followed in 2018, Music of Remembrance’s 20th anniversary, by pieces focusing on the World War II experiences of Japanese and Japanese Americans. One work will be about internment in the U.S. and two pieces will be based on texts from victims of the atomic bombings.

For 2019, she plans to commission a work focusing on the current refugee crisis “because that mirrors what Jews experienced during the Holocaust.”

“We’re extending our focus beyond the Holocaust itself,” Miller said. “It’s really important today that Music of Remembrance is not just an organization for Jews talking to Jews, it’s about moral lessons.”

Kouyoumdjian supports such a change. “We still have genocide happening today, so this is a conversation that continues. Anything that gives listeners a connection to history is incredibly important.”

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