Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl have a lot in common. Each of the late Austrian Jewish composers is renown for their contributions to the world of liturgical music. And each is a great-grandparent of Nathan Arnold Schoenberg.
So to honor their memory on the occasion of the boy’s bar mitzvah, his parents, Pamela and E. Randol Schoenberg, hosted a Community Celebration Concert featuring their music. Presented at Sinai Temple on Aug. 22, the free event drew more than 1,300 people.
And while it was a time for celebration, something more sober was evident as well: Holocaust remembrance arrangements were included in the program — Arnold Schoenberg and Zeisl fled during the rise of the Nazi Party, but the tragedy influenced their work — and the event was co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), where E. Randol Schoenberg serves as president of the board and acting executive director. For Nathan’s bar mitzvah, he also worked with Remember Us to call attention to a boy who perished in the Holocaust.
Arnold Schoenberg was an accomplished self-taught musician and artist who later became distinguished as a composer. His music became widely influential as he developed a method of composing 12 tones as a way to organize modern music. His compositions are performed regularly by major orchestras around the world.
Zeisl is known for works that are richly tonal. He fled from Austria after Kristallnacht, and eventually arrived in the United States in 1939.
Undergoing a special sound installation to enhance the evening performance, Sinai Temple felt like a summer evening at the Hollywood Bowl. The packed sanctuary was treated to liturgical works performed by conductor Nick Strimple, composer and Holocaust music expert; the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, a master choir dedicated to performing Jewish-themed music; and London-based Ian Farrington, a pianist and organist.
“My grandfathers would be thrilled to know that we are having a celebration of their music in honor of Nathan’s bar mitzvah,” said Nathan’s father, who as an attorney handled a number of cases involving looted art and the recovery of property stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
E. Randol Schoenberg said they had an unshakeable resolve to compose music, and were inventive, creative and accomplished.
“Both of my grandparents looked at music mathematically and were very interested in musical structures,” he said. “Zeisl was good at using tropes and structures, and Schoenberg looked at his music like physics — he was constantly using formulas.”
Connecting the past with the present, Arnold Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre, Op. 39 for chorus and orchestra, has special meaning to Nathan and his family. This selection premiered 75 years ago at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove ballroom with the composer himself conducting at Fairfax Temple’s Yom Kippur services.
Ellie Simon, an alto in the choir, said that this music completes the whole picture of what it means to be Jewish.
“Singing the Kol Nidre makes me feel like I am standing before God,” she said. “I’m asking for repentance and begging for His forgiveness.”
During the time Arnold Schoenberg was working on Kol Nidre op. 39, his homeland of Austria was being invaded and destroyed, and the Jewish subject matter of the Kol Nidre particularly affected him. Although he had fled the Nazis in May 1933, he was occupied with the plight of his European family and friends, the Schoenberg family said.
“My great-grandfather looked to music and wrote pieces to warn people about Hitler,” Nathan said.
Zeisl’s music and tonality is more approachable than that of the other composer, according to Simon.
“His music is completely different; it’s written to give thanks and praise to God through song and instrument,” she said.
Zeisl’s “Requiem Ebraico,” a setting of Psalm 92, was written in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and became his most famous work.
“My grandfather was very inventive and creative, and we felt this was the appropriate concluding piece,” E. Randol Schoenberg said.
Michael Silberstein of Redondo Beach didn’t know what to expect from the performance, but he said he found the music provocative and moving. He said it left him reflecting on his religion and the plights of those in years past.
“It really made me think of what it must have been like for my grandfathers and previous generations,” Silberstein said. “We can maintain a connection through music — it rolls us back in time and it forces my mind into thinking of my ancestors.
The community event approached musical history in a meaningful and reflective way that was personal and relevant, audience member Tamar Simon Hoffs said.
“I think that it’s just so special to have that desire to share this experience. The ‘Requiem Ebraico’ was beyond moving — I can’t stop thinking about it.”