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ROCO's Newest Premiere Shows Life's Thorns And Roses

ROCO is the most fun you can have with chamber music.EXPAND
ROCO is the most fun you can have with chamber music.
Photo by Blueprint Film Co.

History isn't always so rosy, but it tends to bend toward hope. A glance through history books will provide details of great tragic events that tested the human spirit. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles challenged mankind's resolve and questioned the chance for a better future. The worst of times, though, provided the impetus to find new meaning, despite all odds. The Holocaust is no exception to this record, and it provided the backdrop for ROCO's upcoming concert Hope for Beauty, taking place at 5 p.m. November 16 at The Church of St. John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Boulevard.

The evening features the world premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s full chamber orchestra piece "I Too Bleed, and Hope for Beauty," which is a tribute both to Alma Rosé, conductor of the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, and to the enduring power of music. Alaistair Willis returns to ROCO as conductor, also leading additional works by Edward Elgar, Giya Kancheli and Manuel de Falla.

"This piece is about the power of music to basically save people’s souls in a way — to keep them nourished in the beauty and the hope that comes from music, and the profundity music can offer," Adolphe said.

To understand the context of the music's uplifting message and how Adolphe composed the pieces to reflect Rosé's legacy, a listener must first become acquainted with her story.

Figuratively, she was musical royalty. She was born to a famous father, Arnold Rosé, whose internationally-renowned Rosé Quartet premiered music by Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg. Her uncle was Gustav Mahler, and she toured Europe as a violinist with the Viennese Waltzing Girls, who were so successful they managed to turn a profit even during the Great Depression. The Jewish family's good fortune changed, though, during Adolf Hitler's rise to power. Her brother and sister-in-law fled to the US. Alma safely saw her father to England, and she took residence in Holland, where she thought she would be safe. While making a living traveling Europe as a musician, Nazi forces eventually caught her in France, which resulted in her detainment in Auschwitz. Despite her bleak outlook, word of her famous last name got out, and she was able to find her niche.

"She became the conductor of the women’s orchestra there. There was no way for them to be a real orchestra, but there were a group of musicians kept alive because the guards wanted to have live music for themselves," Adolphe said. "She brought the group to a higher level and made them good enough that they were all spared. She spared the life of 48 women through the orchestra."

During her time, she dramatically changed the conditions of the orchestra and its members. She advocated for better living quarters for her players and to end the requirement for members to play outside during harsh weather conditions. Guards allowed it because of the previously mentioned desire for music and also because they made for a good show piece when society's elite would visit the camp. They were used as a facade to hide the rough conditions hidden further behind the fences.

ROCO is the most fun you can have with chamber music.EXPAND
ROCO is the most fun you can have with chamber music.
Photo by Blueprint Film Co.

Adolphe chose the title of the piece from a quote by Manca Svalbova, a doctor, prisoner and friend to Rosé.

"Whenever she heard Alma play the violin, she was very moved. She would say the violin was speaking, saying 'I too bleed and hope for beauty,' and when I saw that, I thought that is what the violin is saying: 'I'm human. I bleed,'" he commented.

Like many members of Auschwitz, Rosé's life ended rather abruptly, though not through nefarious means. Historians speculate she succumbed to accidental food poisoning, cutting short her life but cementing her mark in music and how it literally saved the lives of others. As the composer-in-residence for ROCO, Adolphe wanted to capture Rose's story as he was constructing the piece. He achieve this in a few ways.

"First, she played waltzes all over Europe, these Viennese classics. That’s how her reputation spread before she was arrested. I quote it one point…there’s a brief, eerie moment where the music stops, and there’s a disturbing sound - a [musical] quote from a Viennese waltz - and then it goes back to playing. It’s almost like a hallucination," he said. "The piece has a mix of lyricism. It has a mechanistic, inexorable feeling that things are going wrong. The music makes reference to things in a certain way. There’s a conflict. There’s a driving doom on its way. At the very end, there’s a mix of moods. Her last few phrases has a soaring violin which feels like hope and dark horns which feels like doom."

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"I Too Bleed, and Hope for Beauty" is the first in a triptych of pieces he has written dedicated to musicians of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. The remaining pieces include "We Were the Music" for solo cello and a chamber work "Music is a Dream" for oboe, cello and piano. Both will be performed March 5 at Holocaust Museum Houston, and all three pieces draw from a similar history.

Adolphe said, "All three pieces are connected by the lives of women who turned to music to save themselves from catastrophe during the Holocaust, and it’s proof that music has tremendous power."

During this concert, ROCO will also premiere new works through its FIFteen project, including pieces by Brian Raphael Nabors, Ledah Finck and Jason Gerraughty. The group will also offer its popular ROCOrooters service, which offers up to 6 hours of childcare under the supervision of certified and bonded childcare professionals.

Hope for Beauty starts at 5 p.m., Saturday, November 16 at The Church of St. John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Boulevard. For tickets or information, call 713-665-2700 or visit roco.org. Tickets range from $15 to $35.

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