The world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me opens this Thursday evening—and few people know better than Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto the long and exciting process of getting this new opera ready for the stage. Over the past five years, he’s spent countless hours working through the piece with composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort, then working with stage director Omer Ben Seadia and her creative team as they got the production ready. And now, after a breakneck rehearsal schedule over the past month, Pelto is thrilled for Opera Colorado audiences who are just days away from experiencing the beautiful music and powerful message of Steal a Pencil for Me. Today we check in with Pelto about his experiences with this opera…
The real life story for a new opera was right under composer Gerald Cohen’s nose. As cantor of the Shaarei Tikvah synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, Cohen had known Holocaust survivors Ina and Jaap Polak — members of the congregation there — for over twenty years when he conceived the idea of setting their story to music. Their romance inside a concentration camp had already been the basis of a film documentary called ” Steal a Pencil for Me,” and Cohen easily convinced the couple to consent to and participate in an operatic retelling. But Jaap was 97 at the time and Ina 87, so they urged him to write it quickly. The two were among a group of Dutch Jews deported to the Bergen-Belsen camp in the last year of World War II…
“Yedid Nefesh” is based on a simple, sweet Sephardic setting of a mystical Jewish poem. Together, the three [performers] bring to life the piece’s rich tone and vibrant colors, highlighting both the vivacious and the meditative aspects of the delicate melody. Though each piece on “Sea of Reeds” has its own distinct character and style, Cohen’s gorgeous lyricism flows sweetly through each of them, tying together his exploration of the clarinet’s many diverse colors and dynamics.
First meeting with Cohen’s music and a rewarding experience overall…The initial “Variously Blue” and the poignant “Slow, Still, Tranquil” (the latter from the Yedid Nefesh cycle) are this writer’s preferred episodes, a number of unheralded turns and a range of adroitly organized contrapuntal climates interpreted by impeccable performers utterly involved with the material. When “harmonious virtuosity” rhymes with “moderation”, that’s OK with me.
Three cheers to Navona Records for capturing these performances and sending them out into the world…[In “Yedid Nefesh”], Cohen’s imagination, sense of balance and contrast are expertly employed, making this work a truly cohesive whole and the highlight of the recording. “Grneta Variations” continues to demonstrate just how good Cohen is at taking a germ of an idea and expanding it into a varied, logical journey into fine art and personal meaning.
This impeccably recorded album features music that is smart, reflective, pensive, and ultimately very melodic. Cohen is obviously a man who loves making music and his passion shines through clearly on each and every track. This one will most certainly stand the test of time.
Cohen’s music is filled with vibrant melody, rhythmic clarity, drive and compositional construction that show a mastery of and a real sympathy towards the clarinet…This is a sheer delight to hear, a chocolate-fudge sundae of excellently intertwining musical syntax. Three cheers for this one.
The playing, by the Grneta Ensemble (clarinetists Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski and pianist Alexandra Joan) with violinist Jennifer Choi and violist Maria Lambros, is outstanding–one of the virtues of Cohen’s music is how well the instruments sound and how flattering it is to the players. Navona’s recorded sound is lucid and warm. Most listeners will find something to like here, and more than a few clarinetists will find something they will want to play.
Based on the book of the same title by Jaap Polak and Ina Soep Polak, STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME is a new opera with music by Gerald Cohen and libretto by Deborah Brevoort. A private presentation of excerpts from Steal a Pencil for Me took place at the National Opera Center (at the home of […]
Review of “Steal a Pencil for Me” Scarsdale Inquirer, May 10, 2013 by Andrea Kurtz For many years, Gerald Cohen, the cantor at Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale, wanted to write an opera about the Holocaust. In the interim, he’d composed a two-act opera about Sarah and Hagar and a shorter one about a post-apocalyptic […]