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Arts & Culture

Symphony About Repressed Holocaust Site To Be Performed

Courtesy: MSU College of Music
Conductor Christopher James Lees, who will conduct Shostakovich's Babi Yar in East Lansing and Detroit

Michigan’s State’s College of Music is teaming up with MSU’s James Madison College to present a Symphony. But one with a lot of emotional weight to it. WKAR’s Jamie Paisley has more with a bass-baritone and a Holocaust historian.

JAMIE PAISLEY: When it comes to Dmitri Shostakovich, for his 13th Symphony, being performed this weekend in both East Lansing AND Detroit, his subject matter isn’t something romantic like Mendelssohn or Mozart with Prague. Instead, for Shostakovich, it’s Babi Yar, a site of immense horror during the Holocaust.

[Selection from Shostakovich's Symphony No.13 "Babi Yar"]

JAMIE PAISLEY: That place, Babi Yar, is a ravine outside Kiev where Nazis killed approximately 30,000 Ukrainian Jews in the span of 48 hours, and left the bodies there. But much about Babi Yar was repressed post-war by the Soviet Union, as Dr. Amy Simon who specifically deals with Holocaust studies at MSU’s James Madison College, explains.

DR. AMY SIMON: Another reason that it's maybe less well known among laypeople in the United States, for example, is that people think about concentration camps, they think about death camps, they think about Auschwitz, and this is a difference part of the story. And, like, many of these sites, they were kind of hidden, but also well know. So, it wasn't in the town square that these shootings were taking place, but it also wasn't too far away, so it was kind of an open secret what was going on as people were being, you know, brought out to the ravine for shooting.

JAMIE PAISLEY: As part of these two performances with the MSU Symphony and Choirs, Dr. Simon will also be participating a pre-concert lecture about Shostkovich’s 'Babi Yar' Symphony, as well as a work by Charles Davidson called 'I Never Saw Another Butterfly.' That uses poetry written by the Jewish Children who lived and often times died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It's an effort by the MSU College of Music and MSU’s James Madison College to provide more context before a concert of very complex, and emotional music. I asked Dr. Simon, given her expertise in Holocaust studies how one is able to learn and explore these topics of the Holocaust and not lose themselves.

DR. AMY SIMON: That requires many years of practicing, kind of psychological techniques of distancing. The reason that I got into this in the first place, is that I do feel a lot of empathy for victims. So, it's hard to keep that distance, because that's why I'm interested in the first place. I don't approach it as purely a historical event that happened a long time ago and far away. But I have to for self-preservation, kind of."

JAMIE PAISLEY: Conversely, for MSU Artist-Faculty Member Mark Rucker, who will be singing the Shostakovich 'Babi Yar,' he learned not to shield himself from the emotion, but after a discussion with a colleague, found an empathy with his own path as an African-American.

PROF. MARK RUCKER: We were talking one day, and I said I was trying to get into the mind of this thing. And she said, 'I think you should get into your own mind, and your history, and your family history. What happened back in slavery, you know? Use that too!' And I can't tell you how much that meant to me, because I immediately went back in my mind, and though: How did those people feel? Many times, people of power have tried to do the very thing. Somebody says something about you, you don't like. You try to get rid of them. You try to get rid of that way of doing it. Well, this piece shows you can't. I think it's an ingenious way of communicating that in this piece.

JAMIE PAISLEY: Dr. Amy Simon and Professor Mark Rucker, two participants in Shostakovich 13th Symphony, 'Babi Yar " from MSU’s James Madison College and College of Music. Saturday’s combined Lecture and Concert at the Wharton Center starts at 7pm. While another performance Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall in midtown Detroit starts at 2pm. More information is at music.msu.edu

Note: The MSU College of Music is an underwriter of WKAR.

Correction: The Michael and Elaine Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel at MSU is the collaborative partner with the MSU College of Music, although Dr. Simon's teaching appointment is with the James Madison College.

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