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Music Victoria Symphony composer pays tribute to lives lost in the Holocaust

A Jewish man is seen in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.

ABIR SULTAN/EPA

The whispered words that will blow through the brass in Victoria on Saturday are cries of anguish from long ago. Words borrowed from harrowing goodbye letters that on Saturday will fill Alix Goolden Hall in Victoria with a melodic kind of grief.

Lament of the Wind is the new work by Victoria Symphony composer-in-residence Jared Miller. It receives its world premiere Saturday at the Symphony's New Music Festival: Soundscapes and Landscapes, commemorating Canada's 150th. It is a spatial music concert with five works on the program; soundscapes that evoke different landscapes.

The inspiration for Lament goes back about a decade, to a blustery day in Jerusalem. Miller was visiting the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. Toward the end of a visit is the Hall of Names – a memorial to millions of victims in the absence of headstones and cemeteries. There are photos, brief biographies, pages of testimony submitted by survivors, sometimes simply a name taken from deportation or concentration-camp records. For Miller, the unfathomable figure of six million dead came alive with the individual faces and stories. After the emotionally wrenching experience, he stood on a balcony that overlooks the city of Jerusalem. It was very windy.

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"I was struck by how much this reminded me of whispers and of sighs and cries of humans," Miller says from Victoria. "In the wind I could hear the rustling and whispers of these people who perished."

Miller, now 28, was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Burnaby, B.C. He divides his time between New York, where he is finishing his doctorate at Juilliard, and Victoria, where he is in his third and final year of his composer-in-residence appointment. His maternal grandparents, who were Jewish, escaped Poland shortly before the Second World War, fleeing to Kazakhstan.

"My mom told me that Muslims saved my grandparents' life basically at one point. They took care of them, which I thought was a really poignant and beautiful thing to learn about my family," Miller says.

A great-uncle survived Auschwitz and immigrated to New York. A great-aunt was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto in a garbage can. "She was very small," he says.

But most of their relatives were not that fortunate.

"By my mom's calculation, I could have a total of 17 great-aunts and uncles plus great-grandparents on both sides, but they were all murdered – shot in mass graves, died in Treblinka, Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Some perished in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising."

So, music. Contemplating this commission, Miller's brain – and heart – kept returning to that windy balcony. He began researching, using Yad Vashem's archives. One of the things he found were letters written by a couple imprisoned in a ghetto in Lithuania in 1944; they were farewell letters to their sons, who had escaped in 1940.

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Lament of the Wind was written to evoke those heartbreaking letters, that windswept visit to Yad Vashem.

The composition, a full-orchestra piece running about 15 minutes, calls for the brass players to whisper some of the text of those letters through their instruments; tormented words murmured through trumpets, trombones, a tuba.

Miller, who experimented with different ways of creating the crying sound of the wind, has some musicians blow across the tops of glass bottles to create an effect that sounds like winds blowing. He tuned the glass bottles, filling them with different levels of water to get those different notes. He also uses slide whistles, which produce a sort of crying, sighing effect.

The staging is also key to the piece. All of the musicians begin on stage but at a certain point in the piece, the brass players leave the stage and situate themselves at different places in the hall, so the audience is submerged in the melancholy. And the piano player, who also begins on stage, ends by repeating a lyrical solo on a different piano, out of sight. "It sounds like a distant memory when it's played again off-stage," Miller explains.

The sorrowful, ominous piece has its world premiere at a tumultuous political time. This is not lost on Miller, a dual citizen.

"I think what's going on in the States right now is absolutely terrible," he says. "It's terrifying to see attitudes that have been around for a long time be given the authority to come out of the woodwork and given support even by the government in their first attempt at the Muslim ban. I think it's frightening.

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"At the same time I think it's really heartening to see so many Americans who are standing up to it and protesting," he continues. "I hope that people can continue to have the energy to do that."

Victoria Symphony's New Music Festival: Soundscapes and Landscapes is at Alix Goolden Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. Miller will give a preconcert talk at 7 p.m.

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