On Tuesday evening, Georgia State University’s neoPhonia concert series hosted a performance of “Tikvah,” a concert-length chamber oratorio by composer Burton Beerman, at the Rialto Center for the Arts. The composer was present for the concert. A native of Atlanta who graduated from Grady High School in 1961, Beerman has for decades been associated with Bowling Green State University, where he currently holds the title of Distinguished Artist Professor.
Performers included the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet from Greensboro, North Carolina; the GSU University Singers, directed by Deanna Joseph; soprano Maria Valdes; saxophonist Jan Berry Baker; narrator Dwight Coleman; and dancer Celesta Harazszti, the composer’s wife.
It wasn’t the first time “Tikvah” has been performed in Atlanta. The premiere of the complete oratorio took place January 21, 2006, in the Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel at Morehouse College — a performance that can be seen in its entirety on Vimeo.
Beerman was raised in a conservative synagogue, but some of his experiences turned him away from his religious heritage. Decades later, after an encounter with Philip Markowicz, a theologian and Holocaust survivor, Beerman began a process of healing the rift with that heritage. At the same time, Markowicz was coming to terms with writing and speaking openly about his Holocaust experience. The encounter resulted in both Markowicz’ memoirs of the Holocaust and Beerman’s “Tikvah.”
The King Chapel performance made extensive use of Markowicz’s voice and words on audio tape, and also included the Jewish prayer “Kaddish.” Tuesday’s performance included only audio tape of “Kaddish” near the end of the work, with the rest of Markowicz’s recorded words narrated live by baritone Dwight Coleman. Coleman did well with the narration, but there was something about hearing Markowicz speaking on his own behalf that was galvanic in the Morehouse performance.
Many of Beerman’s works are multidisciplinary, and “Tikvah” is no exception. The 2006 performance involved a video projection of Beerman’s creation, and there were two dancers. Tuesday’s rendition, curiously, included no video. Video would have been a positive, energizing element in this concert, and its contribution to the mix was missed. Harazszti was the sole dancer. She and the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet are also the only performers to have participated in both the premiere performance and this one at the Rialto.
The soloist in the premiere was soprano Andrea Rae, who is Markowicz’s granddaughter. This time it was 23-year-old soprano Maria Valdes, a magna cum laude alumna of Georgia State who landed third place in this year’s Metropolitan Opera Regional Council Auditions in early February. Valdes was the clear standout in this performance, a lovely voice with promise and real musicianship to back it up.
The core of “Tikvah” rests with the saxophone quartet and solo soprano. The Red Clay Saxophone Quartet — Susan Fascher, Robert Faub, Steven Stusek and Mark Engebretsen — played well, as they have been longtime participants in “Tikvah” performances since the premiere. Curiously, on this night, two segments of the soprano sax — a solo and a trio with Valdes and Coleman — were played not by Fascher but by GSU’s Jan Berry Baker, whose performance was in league with that of her Red Clay colleagues.
Three choral movements framed the entire oratorio: opening prelude, a prelude to the second half, and postlude. So the chorus has a relatively small role, but significant overall. Deanna Joseph’s University Singers, underscored by the sparkling piano work of Peter Marshall, in this concert served the music reasonably well. Of the respective performances, it was perhaps the more polished and controlled, but the interfaith chorus in the premiere, led by Uzee Brown Jr., brought a more needful exuberance to emotional high points, particularly the end of the opening prelude, where it made the word “Freedom!,” in its three final iterations, ring like a bell — as it should.