Playing for Our Lives: Terezin as a Composer’s Inspiration

Date: Apr 08, 2021 - Apr 08, 2021

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Sponsor: The Library

Location: Online

Category: Library Events

Part of Musical Journeys with The Library of JTS

An online discussion with Cantor Gerald Cohen and performance by Cassatt String Quartet

Thursday, April 8, 2021, at 7:30 p.m. ET

This concert and discussion, specially programmed for Yom Hasho’ah, are made possible by the support of The Phyllis and Stanley Sanders Holocaust and Anti-Semitism Collection fund for which we are immensely grateful.

This series is co-sponsored by The JTS Library and the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

See more Musical Journeys events

Cantor Gerald Cohen, composer and assistant professor in the H. L. Miller Cantorial School, will speak about his composition, Playing for Our Lives, written as a tribute to the music and musicians of the Terezin concentration camp. The acclaimed Cassatt String Quartet, for whom Playing for our lives was composed, and who will soon record the work for an album of Cohen’s music, will perform the composition.

The music contained in the texture of Cohen’s quartet includes the Yiddish folk song Beryozkele; an excerpt from the children’s opera Brundibar; and the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem. Brundibar was performed more than 50 times at Terezin by the children there, while Verdi’s Requiem—which was probably performed both as speaking to their own danger of death, and as an act of subtle defiance to the Nazis—was sung by a determined group of prisoners led by the dynamic conductor Rafael Schachter. Cohen will discuss how these pieces—and his wish to commemorate those who bravely continued to make art while imprisoned and in danger of death—inspired him and are woven together to create this musical memorial.


Dr. David Kraemer, Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, JTS, will serve as moderator.

About Cantor Gerald Cohen

Composer Gerald Cohen has been praised by Gramophone Magazine for his “linguistic fluidity and melodic gift,” creating music that “reveals a very personal modernism that…offers great emotional rewards.” His opera, Steal a Pencil for Me, based on a true concentration camp love story, had its world premiere production by Opera Colorado in January 2018. Cohen’s operas Sarah and Hagar, based on the story from the book of Genesis, and Seed, a one-act opera about love and choices for a post-apocalyptic couple, have been performed in concert form. Cohen is a noted synagogue cantor and baritone; his experience as a singer informs his dramatic, lyrical compositions. Recent instrumental compositions include Voyagers, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager spacecraft, which had its premiere at New York’s Hayden Planetarium; and Playing for our lives, a tribute to the music and musicians of the WWII Terezin concentration camp near Prague.

Recognition of Cohen’s body of work includes the Copland House Borromeo String Quartet Award and Hoff-Barthelson/Copland House commission, Westchester Prize for New Work, American Composers Forum Faith Partners residency, Zamir Choral Foundation’s Hallel V’Zimrah award, and Cantors Assembly’s Max Wohlberg Award for distinguished achievement in the field of Jewish composition. Cohen received the Yale University’s Sudler Prize for outstanding achievement in the creative arts, and has been awarded commissioning grants from Meet the Composer, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and Westchester Arts Council. He received a BA in music from Yale University and a DMA in composition from Columbia University. He is cantor at Shaarei Tikvah, Scarsdale, NY, and is on the faculties of the H. L. Miller Cantorial School of The Jewish Theological Seminary and of Hebrew Union College. Cohen’s compositions are available by contacting him through his website; he also has works published by Oxford University Press, G. Schirmer/AMP and Transcontinental Music Publications.

About the Cassatt String Quartet

Acclaimed as one of America’s outstanding ensembles, the Manhattan-based Cassatt String Quartet has performed throughout North America, Europe, and the Far East. The Cassatt’s numerous awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the USArtists International, Chamber Music America, CMA/ASCAP, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Meet the Composer, and the Amphion, Copland, Fromm and Alice M. Ditson Music Foundations. Since 1995, the ensemble has been on the performing artist roster for the New York State Council on the Arts.

With a deep commitment to nurturing young musicians, the Cassatt has offered classes for composers and performers at the American Academy, Rome; the Toho School, Tokyo; Bowdoin International Music Festival; Columbia; Cornell; Princeton; Syracuse Universities, and the University of Pennsylvania. The quartet is in residence annually at Maine’s Seal Bay Festival of American Contemporary Chamber Music and Cassatt in the Basin! in Texas.

Named for the celebrated impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, the quartet consists of Muneko Otani, violin; Jennifer Leshnower, violin; Ah Ling Neu, viola; and Elizabeth Anderson, cello.