Local Arts

How to honor the civilians killed in World Wars? Perhaps with this ‘Prayer for Peace’

Cicely Parnas
Cicely Parnas Courtesy of UNC Charlotte

World War I killed about 20 million people, half of them civilians. World War II killed three to four times that many, two-thirds of them civilians. So why, amid Armistice Day/Veterans Day celebrations that pay homage to soldiers, do so few programs salute people who suffered not in combat but because they couldn’t get out of its way?

Jonathan Govias will redress the imbalance slightly Nov. 8 with an extraordinary free event at Booth Playhouse. The conductor, his UNC Charlotte Orchestra and nationally known cellist Cicely Parnas will tackle half a dozen nationally unknown pieces – all apparently local premieres – in a concert titled “Prayer for Peace.” (If Parnas’ name seems familiar, perhaps you saw her play Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 two years ago with the Charlotte Symphony.)

UNCC will honor veterans in a more conventional way on Nov. 11, in another free concert at Ovens Auditorium. “For Heroes Proved,” which also starts at 7:30 p.m., unites the UNC Charlotte Wind Ensemble, University Chorale and Pride of Niner Nation Marching Band. This multimedia concert features patriotic music and video from the band’s summer performances at World War II sites in Normandy; former judge William A. Webb, a U.S. Air Force Vietnam veteran, will provide reflections throughout the program.

Yet for Govias, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I is just one of two important commemorations this year: Kristallnacht took place 80 years ago this November. On this “Night of Broken Glass,” Nazis torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed nearly 100 Jews. Shortly afterward, the German government sent 30,000 Jewish men to Nazi concentration camps.

“A large part of UNCC’s orchestral programming focuses on social impact and outreach, so this kind of performance in the community makes sense,” Govias explains. “I wanted to look at conflict from a different perspective: It’s proper to honor veterans, but other people made sacrifices, too.”

So Govias, director of orchestras for UNCC, has balanced his event between two wars.

English composers Ernest Farrar and George Butterworth, both killed in action during World War I, are represented by “Heroic Elegy” and “The Banks of Green Willow.” French composer Lili Boulanger died outside Paris as the Germans attacked her home town in 1918; her “D’un soir triste”/“Of a sad evening” will be played. (“I don’t know that I’ve heard a darker piece of music,” says Govias.)

Canada gets a nod via Ernest MacMillan’s “Notre Seigneur en Pauvre” (“Our Lord in Beggar’s Guise”); MacMillan was attending operas in Bayreuth as World War I erupted, got classified an enemy alien and went to a German internment camp for four years. He deserves his place here – he’s the only Canadian composer knighted by the queen – but he’s also a shrewd addition: The Canadian consul-general in Atlanta put up 20 percent of cost of the gig. (“I wrote to all the consulates with composers represented,” Govias reports. “They were the ones who said yes. And Blumenthal Performing Arts is charging us only for the ushers, which makes it possible for us to play there.”)

German-born Lukas Foss, whose family fled to Paris in 1933, then came to the United States, wrote “Elegy for Anne Frank” to honor the Dutch teenager whose diary recorded her own family’s unsuccessful attempt to escape the Nazis. (Dawn Carpenter will play the piano solos.) And Israeli composer Sharon Farber’s “Bestemming” (“Destination”) honors Dutch war hero Curt Lowens; soloist Parnas will provide Lowens’ “voice” with her cello, and Jay Morong will read his words.

“He has an amazing story,” says Govias. “He could have fled to Britain but didn’t. Instead, he stayed to help 150 children escape the gas chambers. He ended up in Hollywood, playing Nazi villains in movies and TV shows, and finally died last year.” (You’d most likely have seen him in “Angels & Demons.”)

“The piece has four movements: ‘Shattered, Escape, Resistance, Triumph.’ So you get this journey from despair to optimism by the end, and the concert finishes with a feeling of hope. There’s a community of Holocaust survivors in Charlotte, and I’d especially like to invite them to come: If they call my office (704-687-0922), I’ll be sure they have tickets.”

Govias would not have assembled so ambitious a program when he came to the college five years ago, but the 43-piece orchestra has improved so much that “I can tell people auditioning, ‘I am sorry, but you didn’t make the cut.’ We don’t kick them to the curb: We have a secondary orchestra where they can develop and try again for the first one. Bur I don’t want to make the first one larger. The smaller the orchestra, the better everyone has to play.” (A delegation of top musicians went to Israel two years ago to perform in a festival of Jewish music.)

“I’m more interested in putting together thoughtful programs than doing popular works. I also need to find pieces that stretch the musicians but are things they can still play well. ‘Prayer for Peace’ will do that.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

‘Prayer for Peace’

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8.

WHERE: Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.

ADMISSION: Free.

DETAILS: coaa.uncc.edu.

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