January 28, 2007

A Holocaust Commemoration Both Somber and Hopeful


DAVID WROE is a bit too British to rhapsodize about his good fortune, but he will let on that he never expected a career in New Jersey to get this good.

”In short, it’s a thrill to get my hands on such quality players,” Mr. Wroe, the 42-year-old conductor of the Westfield Symphony Orchestra, said recently. ”I could have ended up in the nether lands of community theater.”

Instead, on Feb. 5, Mr. Wroe, the former assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, will make his debut at a place for which artists have been known to practice a lifetime: Carnegie Hall.

The event is ”Partners of Hope,” presented by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation to remember the Holocaust. It is an ambitious effort to merge Holocaust rescue stories with high art.

”Really, the idea was to commemorate what happened 60 years ago, but in a way that was not morose,” said Mr. Wroe, who lives in Springfield and has led the Westfield orchestra, which ranges from 50 to 80 players, since 1998. (The orchestra has performed at Carnegie Hall previously, under a different conductor.)

Last February, the program’s organizer, Radi Georgiev, a Bulgarian composer and producer, asked Mr. Wroe to conduct the concert. ”We wanted it to be a commemoration of positive energy,” Mr. Wroe said.

To that end, a multinational group of performers has been selected to present perspectives both reflective and forward-looking. United Nations Under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, and others will read stories of the rescue of Jews in Bulgaria (where 50,000 of them, virtually the entire population, were saved) and other countries during World War II. The Bulgarian-born soprano Anna Veleva will sing various arias, and the Israeli folk singer David Broza will take the stage with his guitar.

Besides performing Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, the Westfield musicians will be playing the premiere of a work by the Montclair composer Robert Cohen that Mr. Cohen counts among the most important of his 40-year career. They will be joined for that part of the concert by the Pro Arte Chorale, a 70-member Paramus-based chorus directed by David Crone, as well as by Ms. Veleva and a yet-to-be-announced baritone. The new piece, ”Of Eternity, Considered as a Closed System,” a six-part composition, germinated in 2004, the product of a lunch date.

”I was looking to do something nontheatrical, and years earlier I had set a Wallace Stevens poem to music,” Mr. Cohen said. ”I came to Hyam Plutzik through Roberta Baldwin” — Roberta Plutzik Baldwin, a Glen Ridge real estate agent who has worked with Mr. Cohen as a co-producer on past theatrical projects. ”She said: ‘My father was a poet. What about using his poetry?’ That put me in a corner.”

Mr. Cohen, like many people outside college English departments, had never heard of Mr. Plutzik, who died in 1962 and is the subject of a recent documentary. But once Ms. Baldwin gave him a volume of his poetry, he was hooked.

”Plutzik’s poems aren’t specifically Holocaust-related, but subtextually, a lot of them have a relationship to it,” Mr. Cohen said. ”He enlisted in the Army in 1943 as a drill sergeant,” serving in Britain.

”I loved the idea of that, of somebody who could combine one of the most brilliant art forms — poetry — with the control and structure of being a drill sergeant.”

The title poem, which Mr. Cohen called ”a paradox about death and science,” is the final one in the composition. Others, including ”The Uneasy Hedonist” and ”Shoeless Joe Jackson,” were chosen for their lightness. ”I wanted to create an arc, to balance it out so each poem would represent a different aspect of his persona,” Mr. Cohen said.

Gratifying as the premiere will be for Mr. Cohen, the venue will make it even more so.

”I’ve been in a daze since I found out it was going to happen,” he said. ”The first time I was at Carnegie Hall, my father had taken me to a concert. I was amazed. I was 8. So in a sense, I’ve been waiting 53 years for this.”

Mr. Wroe, who is a regular conductor with the New York City Opera and artistic director of SOPAC Virtuosi at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, is less awestruck but perhaps equally delighted.

”Some never get the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall,” he said. ”Others wait a lifetime. I’m extremely proud to be taking my orchestra there.”

The concert ”Partners of Hope” will take place on Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. in the Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue; carnegiehall.org or (212) 247-7800.