Thursday, March 30, 2023

On Wednesday evening, April 19, “A Concert for Sugihara” will take place at the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall. The U.S. premiere of Symphony No. 6, “Vessels of Light,” commissioned by Yad Vashem and the American Society for Yad Vashem, will be dedicated to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice consul to Lithuania, who issued thousands of visas to safety for Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, as well as to all those who risked their lives to save victims of the Shoah. Sugihara was honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in 1985, shortly before his passing.

The concert is the result of a remarkable confluence of personalities, events, organizations and individuals who combined their passion, artistry and skills to make the event possible. Sugihara’s son Nobuki is an enthusiastic supporter of the project.

We begin with gifted cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, who will perform at the concert together with the New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus, under the direction of Conductor Constantine Orbelian. Cooper was born in the U.S. to an elite Japanese musical family on her mother’s side and a father who was a classical musician of Northern European descent. After pursuing her musical training in Paris, North Carolina and Los Angeles, Cooper returned to New York, where she attended Juilliard. It was there that she made the acquaintance of fellow student, noted classical pianist and composer Lera Auerbach, of Soviet Jewish heritage, whom she sought out to create ”Vessels of Light.” As a child of parents who themselves escaped persecution, Auerbach was sensitive to the project and even wove Yiddish poets’ writings from the Holocaust into the symphony.

After Cooper’s Orthodox conversion and marriage to investment banker Leonard Rosen, the couple moved to Israel. They reside in Tel Aviv with their three children: Zach, 14; Tali, 10; and Jonathan, 7. Not long after moving to Israel, Rosen received a commemorative coin from Yad Vashem honoring the memory of Chiune Sugihara as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. It was then that Cooper learned that her husband’s father, Irving Rosen, had been issued one of Sugihara’s life-saving visas. Learning about this modest man who took such a courageous stance touched her deeply and motivated her to bring his story forward.

Cooper shared her inspiration and vision for the project. “I first conceived the vision of a grand musical project commemorating the life of Chiune Sugihara when I learned the incredible story of this righteous and humble man. It was a profound realization to know that were it not for his heroic actions of saving thousands through his transit visas against the orders of his government, my husband and three beautiful children would never have existed. My husband’s father, Irving Rosen, was the recipient of Sugihara’s visa No. 1628, which ensured his survival. Thus, from the ashes and horror of the Holocaust, he was able to build a new family and life.

“Having chosen to become part of the Jewish people as an observant Modern Orthodox Jew, I recognize the value of hakarat hatov, the recognition of good deeds,” Cooper continued. “I was inspired to recognize this courageous man the only way I know how, through the transcendence of music. It has been my dream, and now, incredibly, a reality, to bring this project to perfection through Lera Auerbach’s amazing and beautiful musical score and to celebrate the preciousness of life by shining light on an ultimately very courageous act of Chiune Sugihara. May his actions continue to inspire us all.”

In seeking sponsors for the project, Cooper reached out to classical music manager Edna Landau Bechhofer, who was deeply honored to have represented world-renowned and beloved violinist Itzhak Perlman for 21 years. By the end of their first conversation, they had created a professional as well as personal bond realizing that they were both Orthodox Jews. In October 2019 Bechhofer proposed the tribute to Lawrence Burian, a member of the executive board of directors of the American Society for Yad Vashem, who took the project to ASYV and thus the commission was launched.

Bechhofer shared: “Of all the projects I have undertaken in nearly 50 years in the classical music industry, nothing has made me prouder than collaborating with Kristina Cooper and Yad Vashem in this remarkable undertaking. Working with Kristina has been an absolute joy. Her boundless energy, grace, warmth, vision and unflagging optimism have been the bedrock of the success we have achieved in honoring Chiune Sugihara in a most unique way.”

Joel Zisenwein, director of the department representing the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, said that over the years, Yad Vashem honored 40 professional diplomats who, like Sugihara, defied their government’s official policies in saving Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Most lost their careers and ended their lives in dire poverty. Zisenwein shared that over the last five years, despite the aging survivor population, there have been over 200 applications per year to honor Righteous Among the Nations. He attributes this phenomenon to survivors facing the end of life and wishing to acknowledge their rescuers. “To date, the tree-lined Avenue of the Just at Yad Vashem is filled, and the names of the rescuers are engraved on surrounding walls,” he said.

For Abbi Halpern, co-chair of the Sugihara concert with Mark Mlotek and Peter Till, and a board member of ASYV, the event is especially meaningful. ASYV has been an integral focus of her husband’s family since grandparents Gladys and Sam Halpern were involved in its founding with Eli Zborowski, z”l in 1981. Halpern, who resides in Livingston, initially served on the young leadership board and feels that the key to raising awareness and ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust reach our young people is education. “We are hopeful that events such as this magnificent concert will attract multiple generations, entire families, Jewish and others, who will learn the lessons of heroism and concern for others, especially during these times of rampant antisemitism,” Halpern said.

The world premiere of Symphony No. 6, “Vessels of Light,” took place on November 5, 2022 in Kaunas, Lithuania, where Sugihara’s life-saving visas were issued. Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan was present at the performance as were many members of the diplomatic corps from around the world. Upcoming concerts include Prague on March 27, the West Coast premiere featuring the UCLA Philharmonia and Chamber Singers on May 18, Festival Napa Valley on July 18, Warsaw with Sinfonia Varsovia on October 8, and the final concert of the year with the Dresden Philharmonic on November 11, 2023. The opening concerts in 2024 will take place in Germany. Cooper’s vision is to bring the performance to Canada, North and South America, and hopefully to Israel and Japan.

Kudos to three Teaneck residents who have been instrumental in bringing this concert to fruition. Stanley Stone serves as the executive director of ASYV; Suzy Schwartz serves as the director of marketing and communications for the organization. Zalmen Mlotek, a descendant of a Sugihara survivor, is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene and will serve as the master of ceremonies for the evening.

To purchase tickets to “A Concert for Sugihara” at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, April 19 at 7 p.m., go to carnegiehall.org or call carnegiecharge at 212-247-7800. To sponsor, contact [email protected], call 646-970-4959 or go to www.yadvashemusa.org/sugiharasponsorships 

By Pearl Markovitz

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