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How do you share the story of a woman’s life in just 30 minutes?

How do you capture their spirit without using words? How do you write music about a person who lived through war and migration, and now lives in the memories of their family?

For Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, it begins with a fragment. A photo of a 16-year-old girl with striking eyes and clothes that look like a uniform. A conversation with people who knew that girl after she grew up and escaped the Nazis to make a safer life in Australia. An impression of a woman in her final years, whose mind still held a lifetime of knowledge from the books she’d read, languages she’d learnt, artworks she’d contemplated.

Piece by piece, these fragments started to form a picture in Elena’s heart. And the result is a half-hour piece of music that shares the story of Sara Weis – also known by the loving nickname Sarenka.

“A piece that she would like to listen to”

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will premiere all six movements of Elena’s new Sarenka Concerto: for Solo Violin and Solo Violincello, which features in this year’s Celebrating Women in Music series.

“It’s not just a piece about her – I thought it was a piece that she would like to listen to,” Elena says of Sarenka. Nine members of Sara’s family commissioned this new Australian music, and they worked closely with the composer to relay memories of “a woman who had a lot of bravery and courage, kindness and knowledge and love”.

“The family put all this trust into me,” Elena shares. “To be bestowed that kind of honour – to write a big piece like this – I’m humbled. Really humbled by this honour; and by the fact that Melbourne Symphony Orchestra came on board.”

MSO patron Bob Weis told Encore Magazine that “music was like oxygen” to his mother Sara, who was a subscriber to the orchestra. Sara loved classical pieces in particular, so Elena – a multi-award-winning composer who works with classical and art music languages – seemed like the perfect fit for their heartfelt commission.

Elena Kats Chernin 2023 Credit Ilya Shirshov

The first movement of Elena’s new concerto is called Childhood, and its light and energetic music recalls Sara’s earliest years in South East Poland. Her father was a doctor who filled her childhood with love and education; they were surrounded by community. But Sara would soon experience an unimaginable tragedy: the Nazi invasion that would take the lives of her Jewish family.

Rooted in Childhood is a single, insistent note that represents the “stable character, very solid, dependable” young Sara. Towards the end of the movement, darker chords cut through the innocence – a subtle premonition of the wartime events to come, which are depicted in Danger.

“I did not want to have the word ‘war’ in there,” Elena says of the second movement, noting that Holocaust survivors often avoid speaking about their experiences. Instead, the title Danger represents what Sara was feeling, and “what is coming towards her – it’s like this wall of sound”. It boasts a military feel with dissonant themes set against rhythmic percussion.

“That's the most important part of what happened in her life,” Elena says. “Nothing was the same after that. If you lose your whole family, and you are in danger yourself and you'd survived horrible things, you could never stay the same person.”

The teenaged Sara fled the massacre in disguise. Elena uses her third movement Hope to signal this escape from the Nazis, as well as the following years in which Sara, her husband, and their son Bob travelled by boat to Australia.

Hope is infused with “Jewish flavour” as a reflection of their past, but it looks towards a brighter future with Good Times, as the following movement is named.

Sara enjoyed a bustling social life in mid-century Melbourne, and her professional life was equally fulfilling. She spent time working in a Jewish kindergarten, surrounded herself with art as a National Gallery of Victoria guide, and operated a family business making pantyhose.

“They danced, they were very outgoing in a way, and the business was going really well,” Elena says of the Weis family. Good Times weaves an atmosphere of ticking machinery to represent the business ventures, and uses tango rhythms to conjure the “pure fun” of the era.

EKC Bruria Hammer DSC00107 3

The fifth movement in this musical biography, Ripples, is introspective and features gentler textures and magical instruments such as vibraphone, bells, and flutes. It’s also the beginning of goodbye to the late Sara.

“I tried to represent her wisdom and her knowledge…the people she knew and the books she read,” Elena says. “All this information is fleeting. It just goes through you, because she’s no longer there.”

Taking in these ripples of music, “you let your mind rest”.

Elena listened to the members of Sara’s family when crafting the emotive final movement Memory of the Future.

“She was very awake till the end. She was very aware of the world, and was concerned for the world, but was very strong and had optimism in her as well,” Elena says.

“I wish I met her. The whole time, I just thought, ‘Wow, what a great woman. What a strong woman, beautiful woman’.”

“Women are incredible human beings”

Sara’s incredible life story features in the Celebrating Women in Music showcase. This four-concert MSO series highlights the work of renowned women composers.

Cybec Young Composer in Residence Melissa Douglas’ MSO commission Awaken, and 2023 Composer in Residence Mary Finsterer’s MSO commission AD HONOREM BEATÆ MARIÆ VIRGINIS & STABAT MATER, are premiered in the September program.

Yorta Yorta composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO’s Long Time Living Here (Musical Acknowledgement of Country) and Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace are featured in October, as is Elena’s Sarenka Concerto: for Solo Violin and Solo Violincello.

“We have so many women composers now,” Elena says. After a beat, she adds: “I guess we always did. We just didn't know.”

“It really makes me happy, and it gives me hope for the future,” she smiles.

“I think that we live in a very exciting time for women composers now, because there's more and more coming up and it's wonderful. There can never be enough, obviously."

"Women are incredible human beings."

Sibelius and Prokofiev: Love and Resistance

Witness the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform the world premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Sarenka Concerto for Solo Violin and Solo Violincello.

27 October 2023 at 7.30pm
28 October 2023 at 2.00pm
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall

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