Last year’s concert held to mark Holocaust Memorial Day was focussed on the works of three composers who perished in one of the most reviled concentration camps during the Second World War, this year the spotlight shifted to the lives of ‘ordinary’ people – the clue is in the title.

Although the object was to mark one of the most unspeakable events in world history, this was more of a celebration than a sombre remembrance. I don’t want to copy and paste or repeat myself, so I have added this link to the article I wrote last year which gives a potted history of Leeds and the Jewish refugees of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

The genre of music featured was klezmer, which was played at Yiddish-speaking events which marked significant milestones; anything from weddings and bar mitzvahs to more general celebrations such as the opening of the first asphalt road between Ankara and Istanbul! The inclusion of this piece was to demonstrate that the inmates of the concentration camps were not only German Jews but were from countries farther afield such as Turkey and, they were not all necessarily Jewish but any group to whom the Third Reich took exception, so there were political dissidents such as trade unionists, Romani Gypsies and those of a non-orthodox sexual orientation. Merlin Shepherd said that they would be playing klezmer ‘because that is what we do!’ Not only is that what they do, but it is what they do superbly well.

Not all of the pieces were given titles, most were instrumentals, but it was pretty obvious what their purpose was. The first was unmistakably a celebration of a happy event, probably a wedding, with the enthusiasm of the performers in evidence from the start. Although mesmerised by the skill of the players, I closed my eyes for a while and let the music take me where it chose. I could see the father of the bride dancing flamboyantly with his arms held up throwing the shapes which only dads can at weddings, no matter of what religion. There were one or two more sombre pieces but not melancholy, more melodic.

Howard Croft and Marie Lemaire

To remind us of the atrocities committed, there were two readings by Howard Croft and Marie Lemaire. In their first segment they read extracts from letters sent between generations of a family which had been separated in Ukraine in 1941, they began on a positive note with the grandchildren saying what a good time they were having with their grandparents and aunt but which grew increasingly intense when the older family members’ correspondence was read. The pleas as to how the application for a travel permit was progressing so that they could move to safety, becoming more desperate. The situation was left unresolved as the missives abruptly ended, making them all the more moving for not providing a definite conclusion, although we all knew what it would have been.

The second reading was of a poem, There Once Was A House Here, which told the story of a family home where there would be parties and gaiety provided by the family playing instruments and singing, accompanied by a wandering minstrel with his violin and jaunty hat, who performed until exhausted. The ending told that there was now just a shell where the home had been with the only things left being the violin and hat in the rubble of the cellar. Once again, the open-ended technique of narrative proving far more powerful than any graphic detail could.

Back to the music, which seamlessly segued from the description of the fiddle in the cellar to the plaintive violin of Anna Lowenstein, which began the next piece. It was then time for more uplifting tunes which proved to be doubly so with Mr Shepherd saying that the holocaust was not the end of a way of life but a beginning of the appreciation of cultures which had survived the event and are now being rediscovered and celebrated. To prove this point they absolutely rocked the final piece with the audience tapping their feet and swaying, some even did these things in time with the music! The finale built to a crescendo and picked up speed until the band had seemingly given their all. The applause were so enthusiastic that they came back to repeat the final few minutes of the tune, leaving us all on a terrific high.

The musicians were absolutely superb with the aforementioned Merlin Shepherd on clarinets, and Anna Lowenstein on violin, along with Simon C Russell on bass and Joshua Middleton accordion. Every one of them seemed to be enjoying themselves to the full, getting into the mood of celebration during the more upbeat pieces, none more so than Mr Middleton who was so animated that the sheets of music on the stand in front of him ended up all over the floor, something which didn’t quell his enthusiasm in the slightest. I don’t think that I have ever seen a rock accordionist before.

Once again, an evening at the wonderful Howard Assembly Room proved to be a most stimulating experience, with not an emotion untouched.

To see what is coming up please go to the forthcoming season is so diverse in its content that there is bound to be something to appeal.

Photographs by Stan Graham

One thought on “Ordinary Lives: The Merlin Shepherd Quartet at Howard Assembly Room

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