It is 2002.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic is playing its final season at the Music Center. Conductor Esa Pekka Salonen pulls out all the stops, as it were. The full orchestra, augmented with a full choir, performs Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘The Survivor of Warsaw’ and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The program requests that the audience not applaud until the conclusion of the program. There is no intermission.
‘Survivor’ is a gut-wrenching cacophony. There is a vocal part, called ‘The Narrator’, but very much a performance. He is a survivor of the camps. He is struck on the head by a soldier and falls down. They mistake him for dead and ignore him as they order the Jews to count out so they can know how many to send to the gas chambers.
These are his memories now. ‘The Narrator’ tells us he found himself living in a sewer beneath the Warsaw Ghetto and doesn’t know how he got there.
‘The Narrator’ is performed by Leonard Nimoy.
It is a heartfelt performance. Nimoy was the son of orthodox Jews from the former Soviet Union who emigrated to Boston. He grew up experiencing persecution, living in a community where Yiddish was spoken as often as English. He was exposed to the faith in every way.
It is an experience he shared with the world. The Vulcan culture drew heavily from Nimoy’s upbringing. Perhaps most famously, the Vulcan salute was contributed to ‘Star Trekby Nimoy, who drew from Birkat Kohanim, the Hebrew Priestly Blessing. It is a sign for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet that spells God.
The Schoenberg piece ends abruptly. I am falling through some inner space, spent. And then, without pause, Salonen’s baton rises and the opening strings of Beethoven’s ‘Chorale’ lift me on wings of angels.
I am saved. My hope is restored.
But that moment between the two pieces where I was hanging in space – I shall never forget that moment as long as I live. It was the most profound music I have ever heard.