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Feature

Michael Dennis Browne, Stephen Paulus

Librettist Michael Dennis Browne (left), an English professor, poses with composer and alumnus Stephen Paulus. Their Holocaust memorial oratorio, To Be Certain of the Dawn, is being performed in the area and Europe, as well as recorded by the Minnesota Orchestra.

New chances to hear Holocaust memorial oratorio

A U professor and graduate created the widely acclaimed work

By Deane Morrison

February 12, 2008

The first thing you hear is the rousing blast of a shofar. Normally, this instrument with the voice of a hunting horn is associated with Jewish High Holy Days services. But at the opening of the Holocaust memorial oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, it startles like a wake-up call, a warning that this piece will deal unflinchingly with a dark period in history where it was mainly Jews who were hunted. The oratorio is the most sweeping creation yet of two prolific artists: renowned composer and triple University alumnus Stephen Paulus and librettist and U English professor Michael Dennis Browne. Premiered in November 2005, To Be Certain of the Dawn will be performed by the Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, tonight (February 12, 2008), and the concert will be broadcast on KSJN radio (91.1 FM) at 8 p.m. CST Friday, February 15. Also this week, the Minnesota Orchestra, along with soloists and choirs, will record the work for the Swedish BIS label. Free performances by musicians from St. Cloud State University, St. John's University, and the College of St. Benedict will be held at St. Cloud State April 25 and St. John's April 26. In May and June, these groups will take the work to Europe, including a performance at the site of a concentration camp in France. "This is the biggest thing we've done," says Browne, a well-known poet, who first collaborated with Paulus in 1977. "It was very eye- and heart-opening for me to work on this. "Words without music is like boats on sand. To Be Certain of the Dawn is the deepest water I've ever floated in." "It deals with some real issues," notes Paulus. "Some people don't want to accept that there was some culpability [of Christians]. I think Michael's text walked a fine line between parties and got his point across without doing it offensively."

From basilica to synagogue

The idea for the oratorio originated with Rev. Michael O'Connell, rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, who wanted to celebrate his parish's long interfaith relationship with Temple Israel, also in Minneapolis. "He wanted to acknowledge Christian collaboration in the Holocaust and said it must be named for what it is," recalls Browne. "They wanted a large-scale work. He contacted me, and I contacted Stephen."

"Words without music is like boats on sand. To Be Certain of the Dawn is the deepest water I've ever floated in."--librettist Michael Dennis Browne

The resulting work, says Browne, was a gift from the Christian community to the Jewish community. Both he and Paulus make it clear that it looks forward, not only to the healing of past wounds but to the necessity of continual vigilance in the face of crimes against humanity. "The violence of the world just keeps metastasizing," says Browne. "I hope young people will hear this and be stirred to do something." It was Paulus who came up with the title, which comes from a quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century rabbi and writer: "This is the task: in the darkest night, to be certain of the dawn ..." Paulus also added a familiar and recurring theme in the piece, one that occurred to him after he saw a picture of a stone tablet taken from a destroyed synagogue in Berlin. Of all the synagogue's contents, the tablet alone had survived Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass, when the Nazis unleashed their reign of terror by attacking Jewish institutions and businesses. The theme is inscribed on the tablet, in German and Hebrew: "You should love your neighbor as yourself." The oratorio is highlighted by projections of photographs of Jewish life before the Holocaust. Through the mouths of soloists, the people in the photographs talk about what seems to be going on at those moments in their lives. One picture shows a young boy looking down at a Torah. In a baritone solo, the boy imagines himself falling into the characters he reads about, ending his soliloquy with "They never found me." Another picture shows children all dressed up; it was probably taken in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp the Nazis presented to the world as a happy community. Soon after the picture was taken, the children were killed. "When I saw these pictures, I was pierced by them," Browne says. The music, too, drives the listener, stripping away any sense of comfort with the ideas and images of the piece. The opening shofar is followed by a soaring blessing from a cantor, but not before the orchestra has interjected an unruly cluster of sounds. "It's a jumble of notes, to signal that this won't be a namby-pamby, white bread piece," says Paulus. "It's not a pinot noir, but a Cabernet." The calmest moment comes during the Hymn to the Eternal Flame, a commemoration of the children who died in the Holocaust. The words, says Browne, are based on the image of the central flame and many thousands of reflected flames at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. At the end, the cellos and basses sound a low, ominous note by alternating between a D-flat major chord and an octave G--a discordant effect. "It unsettles," says Paulus. "It suggests it's an open-ended problem--not all wrapped up."

The reaction

Osmo Vanska, conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, has loved the oratorio from the beginning, say Browne and Paulus. The orchestra premiered the work in November 2005, a year that marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps and the 40th anniversary of a Vatican document that condemned the blaming of Jews for the death of Christ. The premiere also fell a few days from the anniversary of Kristallnacht, which happened the night of November 9, 1938. The response of the audience, among whom were many members of Temple Israel, was immediate and visceral. For Browne, one of the most memorable came from Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, former rabbi of Temple Israel and now director of the Jewish studies program at St. Cloud State University. "He was in the row ahead of me," Browne recalls. "He turned around and said, 'Thank you.'"