How can today's artists say something new and helpful about the Holocaust? For Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus and poet Michael Dennis Brown, the key was to focus on children.
In their multimedia oratorio “To Be Certain Of The Dawn,” the pair took inspiration from Roman Vishniac's photographs of Jewish children in pre-Shoah Europe. Brown, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, says the “children’s faces are the sun, moon and stars of this work.”
Brown provides instructions on projecting these photos during performances, but even without the visuals, the work helps us imagine the children’s perspectives.
In this excerpt, a boy from one of the photos says he is “looking down on the book/ so many little characters / all of them keys/ says Mama/ keys to all the doors," and concludes, “sometimes I think I see looks on their faces / (they’re looking at me)…” It’s performed here by Waverly, Iowa's Wartburg Choir led by Dr. Lee Nelson, who conducted the complete work at the 2012 American Choral Directors Association conference to great acclaim.
Brown and Paulus undertook the work on a commission from Father Michael O’Connell of the Basilica of St. Mary’s in Minneapolis. To act on his belief that “Christians must own and teach about the Holocaust as much as or more than Jews," O'Connell sought to mark the anniversaries of the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 1945 and of the Vatican declaration condemning religious intolerance and anti-Semitism in 1965.
Since the 2005 premiere at St. Mary's, "To Be Certain Of The Dawn" has been performed about two dozen times around the country - almost twice a year, making it one of the most-performed major American choral works of our century.
Yet performing it is no small undertaking. "To Be Certain Of The Dawn" requires an orchestra, adult and youth choirs, vocal soloists, a cantor, and the blowing of the shofar. That large roster is part of why performances tend to be community events, which is in line with Father O’Connell's intentions.“He wanted the work written in such a way that young people would be able to participate in it as fully as possible," Brown says.
I first heard "To Be Certain Of The Dawn" in an unforgettable community performance in 2009. Jamie Spillane conducted the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra, joined by the Bel Canto Chorale, Mount Pleasant Chorale, Indian Hills Concert Choir, and Iowa Wesleyan College Choir. From it, I want to share a high point, "The Hymn To The Eternal Flame."
Brown says this section “is based on the children’s memorial of multiple reflected flames at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.”
The soprano soloist is Lisa Hearne, the Director of Choral Music at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon.
The work was also performed in part at a moving 2013 event (broadcast by IPR Classical) with Jason Weinberger leading a similar coalition of performers - the wcfsymphony, Metropolitan Chorale, Cedar Valley Youth Honor Chorus, Hunter Capoccioni, Cedar Valley Chamber Music, and the Wartburg Choir.
It was also performed in Des Moines in 2009, with all four of the Drake University choirs and the Heartland Youth Choir led by Aimee Beckmann-Collier. For that event, Dr. Beckmann-Collier produced this video of a discussion of the work by Brown and Paulus (who died five years later, in 2014, at age 65 of a stroke).
If the work's focus on children seems as timely as ever, so does the artists’ purpose.
"To Be Certain of the Dawn," wrote Brown, “Intends a message of hope for the children of today’s world; as the common, profound saying goes, ‘You cannot tell the children there is no hope’.”