With nearly 220 musicians — 140 singers from two choirs, a rock band, a chamber orchestra, an operatic tenor and enough lights and multimedia to satisfy a pop star — the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda is pulling out all the stops for its latest big tent event. That the lavish performance of “Iron & Coal” on May 3 and 4 retells a real-life Holocaust survivor’s tale is, perhaps, the most unexpected part of it.
St. Louis native Jeremy Schonfeld — a composer, singer and pianist — conceived and wrote the evening-long work. He was inspired by his father Gustav Schonfeld’s experience as a 10-year-old living for nearly a year in Auschwitz. Large enough for his age to say he was 16, he became an assistant to his father, a medical doctor who helped the camp’s prisoners with makeshift remedies.
Father and son survived along with other family members and immigrated to St. Louis. There the young Gustav became a doctor, like his father. Jeremy Schonfeld said he was familiar with the basics of his father’s experience and family history, but details were often glossed over.
“My sister, brother and I all … knew the story … [my father] was not closed about it, I think, because he was so young — just a boy — when he was in Auschwitz,” Schonfeld said last week during a rehearsal break. In recent years the musician/composer returned to his father’s story with the intention of retelling it through music.
“I think he really wanted to make sure that his story was told, even if it was just for his kids and grandkids. A memoir, “Absence of Hope,” became the template for Jeremy Schonfeld’s hybrid piece, which was first recorded as a concept album.
Now it comes to the concert hall.
Schonfeld found that simply musicalizing his father’s memoir wouldn’t work: “It became apparent pretty quickly that … he told his story and it was his story to tell.” The composer realized that a broader generational story would resonate across cultures, religions and generations. He especially wanted to reach younger audiences.
“I like to work musically in very emotional places, places that have to do with psychological and emotional states,” he explained.
The storytelling is non-linear and illuminates the memories of Old Gustav, the father figure — sung by tenor Rinde Eckert — along with the experiences of young Gustav — played by Lincoln Clauss. Jeremy Schonfeld plays himself, both observing and experiencing the impact his father’s Holocaust and immigrant experience has had.
Schonfeld likens “Iron & Coal” to a mashup between Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” As bombastic as that sounds, Strathmore’s artistic director, Joi Brown, is convinced “Iron & Coal” will find its audience and convey its important message — “Never forget.”
“I like that the piece is a way of accessing the story of the Holocaust through one family’s perspective,” she said. “It’s like the lesson we learned through ‘Hamilton’: If you use a different vernacular, you can bring in a new audience to a story.”
She hears and sees the personal and the universal in the Schonfeld family’s experiences writ large in lavish musical statements. “This is a new style of telling the story with a different perspective. In the end, I’m drawn to the artistry of it,” she said. “Jeremy is a great singer/songwriter. He has a really easy accessible style.”
Schonfeld admitted surprise at how large this production has become. An initial program in Brooklyn, N.Y., following the creation of the concept album, was an intimate affair in comparison to Strathmore’s production.
“Do we need 140 people in a choir? And an orchestra and all the rest?” he pondered. “It’s a mix of all that lush, the multimedia,” he said, that provides the work’s power and overwhelming effect. “But if I thought for one second that it took away from the emotional content of the story’s intimacy, the specificity of the story, then we would cut it down immediately,” he insisted.
That said, with Strathmore’s backing, Schonfeld decided to go big, bold and tell a story of the Holocaust with a decidedly 21st-century sensibility.
The work features a varied musical palette that mingles rock and roll with liturgy, including a version of the Shabbat z’mirah, or song, “Yedid Nefesh,” which Schonfeld remembers from his family’s Friday night dinners. “That was one of my favorites.” He also weaves in other liturgical snippets and a mourner’s Kaddish prayer.
Is there a need for another work about the Holocaust? “I didn’t set out to create a Holocaust piece,” Schonfeld said. I created a piece about my personal experiences growing up as a child of a survivor. I approached that material in a modern way, not just through classic Yiddish songs and Jewish folklore and folk music. I tried to deal with an emotional journey.”
He added, “We live in a world that’s become obsessed with the sound bite. Attention spans have gone away.” For the one-click generation, Schonfeld said his hope “is that an audience will be swept up in the emotion of the piece and the honesty of it.”
“Iron & Coal” Thursday and Friday, May 3-4, 8 p.m.; Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; tickets $43-$77; call 301-581-5100 or visit strathmore.org.