Singing of a historic 'Dawn'

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November 14, 2005 // UPDATED 1:59 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

The Basilica of St. Mary’s choir premieres its highly anticipated Holocaust Memorial Oratorio this week

Members of the Basilica of St. Mary’s choir are convinced they will make history this weekend with the premiere of “To Be Certain of the Dawn.”

The all-volunteer choir will join the Minnesota Orchestra, the Basilica’s children’s choir and a number of noted soloists for the highly anticipated Holocaust Memorial Oratorio at the Basilica this Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 17-19. Thursday’s performance begins at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday performances begin at 8 p.m.

The concert will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the 40th anniversary of the publication of Nostra Aetate (Latin for “in our times”), a Vatican document that denounced those who blamed Jews for the death of Christ.

For Basilica Choir Director Teri Larson, preparing for the oratorio has been a cathartic experience. The roughly 80-member choir has been preparing for the event since August.

“It’s profound,” she said, adding the music will serve as a “healing mark on history.”

The Basilica’s Rev. Michael O’Connell commissioned the event, which was inspired by his interfaith ministry and collaboration with several local Jewish leaders, including Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel.

The landmark work comes after several joint ventures between the Basilica and Temple Israel, including trips to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Israel, Eastern Europe and Rome.

The idea for the oratorio came to O’Connell about five years ago, after members of the Basilica and Temple Israel visited former concentration camps in Eastern Europe. They walked between the camps in silence.

“The silence was very loud in its testament to the history of what happened there,” O’Connell said.

The group was profoundly moved by the experience. When O’Connell returned from the trip, he was inspired to commission the oratorio to ensure that people don’t forget about the haunting past of the Holocaust.

O’Connell said he has been struck by how naive so many are about the horrors of the Holocaust.

“I wanted 21st-century children to own this history for the future,” he said. “Art is a wonderful vehicle for sustaining memory.”

The children’s chorus, in particular, will play a pivotal role in this weekend’s “To Be Certain of the Dawn.”

In a prepared statement, O’Connell said the “children’s voices in this piece will invite us to see God’s face in every human face — especially in the faces of children.”

“To Be Certain of the Dawn” has three sections: renewal, remembrance and visions. The creative architects behind the production are composer Stephen Paulus, a veteran Minnesota Orchestra collaborator, and librettist Michael Dennis Browne, a teacher and poet.

While O’Connell had the vision for the oratorio, he called on Paulus and Browne to use their artistic talents to create something memorable. He did, however, urge them to create a hopeful message for children.

Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska will conduct the performance and Cantor Barry Abelson of Temple Israel will also have a prominent role in the oratorio.

Paulus and Browne created the oratorio by drawing from several sources, including testimonials from Holocaust survivors, theological reflections and ancient texts. They also made a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., which was a strong source of inspiration for the piece.

The middle part of the performance, remembrance, centers on pictures of people from the time period. The faces will be projected onto pillars in the Basilica. Russian photographer Roman Vishniac took the photographs.

The photographs will be accompanied by hypothetical conversations written by Browne.

“They will put a real face on the whole issue,” Paulus said, adding he hopes people will be moved by the “combination of music, words and subject matter.”

“In its inception, this piece is about God’s presence within us — that ongoing companionship we have neglected — and those deeper and truer relationships between people of Jewish and Christian faiths and all faiths that we have neglected at our cost,” Browne said in a statement.

Browne said the piece will be a “major statement of Christian solidarity” with the Jewish community.

Through his research for the oratorio, Browne, a Christian, said he has become more deeply connected with people of the Jewish faith and aware of common ground between the two religions.

The name of the oratorio, “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” comes from the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th-century philosopher and theologian.

Proceeds from Thursday’s performance will establish an endowment for annual Downtown Interfaith Forums, organized by a variety of houses of worship in the community. The ticket sales will also go toward programs bringing people of different religions together through the arts, travel and other activities.

For the Basilica choir, interfaith collaboration is nothing new.

“It’s very close-knit,” Larson said. “It’s a family in and of itself.”

The choir is a blend of denominations, professions and ages. But all members share one thing in a common: a love of choral music.

Don Patrie, a 15-year-member of the Basilica choir, said he’s particularly proud to participate in the Holocaust Memorial Oratorio.

“It’s a great statement to make,” he said.

Another longtime member, Tony Baisley, echoed Patrie.

“I think it shows that there is much more going on in the Catholic Church than the sound bites we see on television,” he said. “The oratorio itself is a gorgeous piece of music that has incorporated a lot of people’s talents. I am proud to be part of it.”

O’Connell expects the piece will be “portable” and be performed by musicians in other locations.

“My hope is that this piece will be extraordinary,” he said.

Tickets for this weekend’s performances at the Basilica, 88 17th St. N., are sold out. The oratorio will also be broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio on Friday, Nov. 18.

For more information, go to www.certaindawn.org.