Concert celebrates the Sarajevo Haggadah, a symbol of survival

Posted By on October 10, 2014

By Celia Wren October 10 at 10:55 AM

A tale some 600 years old will turn another page Oct. 20, when the multimedia concert The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book has its D.C. premiere. The production, with an original accordion-and-piano score by Bosnian-born composer and accordionist Merima Kljuco, draws on the staggeringly eventful history of the eponymous liturgical volume, whose origins may date as far back as the mid-14th century.

The concert is part of this years Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, mounted by the D.C. Jewish Community Center and running Oct. 19-29.

A Haggadah, the order of service used at the Passover Seder, includes a recounting of the Jews exodus from Egypt. The richly illustrated and ornamented volume that became known as the Sarajevo Haggadah originated in medieval Spain at a time of relative harmony for that countrys Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens. After surviving Spains expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the book turned up in Venice, where, in 1609, a Catholic censors inscription seems to have preserved it from destruction in the Inquisition.

By 1894, the Haggadah was in Sarajevo. During World War II, a Muslim librarian at Sarajevos national museum hid the book from the Nazis, and during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, another Muslim librarian saved the priceless volume by moving it to a bank vault during fierce shelling.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a symbol of survival, and a symbol that inspires respect and tolerance toward different traditions and cultures, says Kljuco, who grew up in Sarajevo and remembers a society that before the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s reveled in diversity. Families such as hers, she said, celebrated holidays with Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighbors and felt a bond with multiple cultural heritages.

It was a very difficult moment for most of us when the nationalists came to power and started to divide us, Kljuco said by phone from her home in Los Angeles.

Kljuco started playing the accordion at age 12. She lived through part of the war but left Bosnia in 1993, when she was 19, and continued her musical studies in Germany and the Netherlands. About four years ago, a friend gave her a copy of People of the Book, a novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah by Geraldine Brooks, who had covered the Bosnian war for the Wall Street Journal. Kljuco was familiar with story of the Haggadah, but Brookss book gave her a jolt of inspiration: She decided to compose a piece of music that would follow the books journey through the centuries.

The Sarajevo Haggadahs unusual illustrations depict, among other events, Gods creation of the world, so Kljuco began her 12-movement composition with a sequence in which her accordion mimics the sound of breath an evocation of metaphysical and artistic creation. Subsequent portions of the score incorporate fragments of Sephardic melodies and bits of traditional Bosnian music and reference a medieval Jewish-Italian dance. And, Kljuco says, with clusters of notes in the pianos low register, she tried to paint musically the terrifying sounds I experienced during the war in Bosnia.

Kljuco worked on the piece during a residency at Yellow Barn, a center for chamber music in Putney, Vt. That organizations artistic director, Seth Knopp (a founding member of the Peabody Trio), became the pianist for the work, which grew to incorporate Bart Woodstrups video imagery. Woodstrup digitally animated the Haggadahs illustrations and other features in such a way as to evoke the books historical experience. For instance, Kljuco said, the visual accompaniment to a movement she titled Inquisitor shows pages of the Haggadah engulfed in flames until the 1609 inscription by the Catholic censor appears, seeming to extinguish the fire.

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Concert celebrates the Sarajevo Haggadah, a symbol of survival

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