Powerful memorial to Holocaust victims

When Donald McCullough set out to create a large scale musical score to memorialize the tragedy of the Holocaust, he found inspiration in the songs and letters of concentration camp prisoners in the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In a profoundly moving concert, Jo-Michael Scheibe led the Frost Chorale in the South Florida premiere of McCullough’s Holocaust Cantata (Songs from the Camps) at Festival Miami on Sunday.

By turns martial and sentimental, McCullough’s 1998 score is music of great simplicity and nostalgia. There is even an elegant tango movement — Eastern European rather than Argentine — for cello and piano.

Songs of Days Gone By is an incredibly haunting melody that lingers in the psyche long after the music has ceased. The musical movements are interspersed by readings of letters from Holocaust victims, making for an emotionally powerful work that honors the insatiable spirit of the victims.

In an innovative multimedia production, harrowing photos of camp life, death trains, and mass graves were projected during the performance. Produced with taste and artistry, it enhanced the score’s power.

Always a masterful chorale director, Scheibe drew the most ethereal of pianissimos and full throated cries of triumph and exultation from his Frost School of Music forces. Soprano Gretel Mink and alto Crystal Simmons were a mellifluous duo in the final song of remembrance.

Cellist Ross Harbaugh and pianist Alan Johnson offered deeply felt accompaniment. University of Miami vocal faculty member Kimberly Daniel de Acha and musicologist and Holocaust scholar Nick Strimple read the letters eloquently.

Scheibe opened the concert with two settings of Salve Regina: To the Mothers in Brazil by Lars Jansson’s pulsated to an irresistible Latin beat while Tomas Luis de Victoria’s version was imbued with austere Renaissance polyphony.

The layered harmonics and spoken phrases of Wolfram Buchenberg’s Magnificat were bracing. Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume’s Anmwe was a delightful brew of indigenous Caribbean folk traditions and surreal mysticism.

Scheibe again demonstrated his penchant for fascinating, musically expansive programming and stellar performances.