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Strings Theory: Curtis Grad Returns Home for Special Concert

January 30, 2013 By:
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Shana Douglas

Shana Douglas has a very simple explanation for why she will be performing a concert of chamber music featuring works by Jewish composers, along with one composer whose life was significantly influenced by Judaism.

“When you go to a concert — probably like 90 percent of the time — the composers will be Christian,” she says. “But there are so many Jewish composers, especially from the 20th century. I want to play their music more.”

So Douglas, a 26-year-old violinist who graduated from the Curtis Institute in 2006, will return to perform at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, her family’s synagogue, on Feb. 6., with a program that includes works by Felix Mendelssohn, the 19th-century German Jewish composer; Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech Jew whose life and career were extinguished at the Würzberg concentration camp in 1941; and Zoltán Kodály, a Hungarian who, while not Jewish himself, was married to a Jew and saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Douglas, who has lived in London for the past six years — she went to graduate school at the renowned Guildhall School, and has made the city her base of performance operations ever since — knows firsthand about the synagogue’s acoustics: In 2012, along with her friends and colleagues, she performed a memorial concert in honor of her late father, Glenn Douglas. “We played some of my dad’s favorite classical music,” she recalls. “It was really well received, so I thought it would be great to do another concert.”

At this point in her career, she has become accustomed to playing in religious venues — she selects and performs concerts at Saint Andrew’s Church in North London, where she has also begun organizing concerts featuring Jewish composers whom she feels have been overlooked in the classical canon.

Douglas was born in West Hartford, Conn., but considers herself a Philadelphian — in addition to moving here at the age of 15 to attend Curtis, her mother, Neila, was born and raised in Oxford Circle and now lives in Society Hill.

For this concert, which Douglas hopes will be the first in a series, she chose the third movement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Opus 44 because “I find it to be really Jewish. It has harmonic minor scales throughout the movement, so you can tell the Jewish influence. It’s so lively and energetic, and more classical than the other pieces” in the concert, which she attributes to Mendelssohn’s work being from the 19th century.

To showcase Schulhoff, whom she calls brilliant and under-represented, Douglas chose the composer’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, a dance suite he created in 1923, between the wars. “It has influences from all over the place,” she explains. “A Viennese waltz, a dance from Czechoslovakia, there’s a tango in there — it’s an example of some of his best work. He wrote pieces in a concentration camp as well, but those are much darker.”

Kodály, who used his position as an instructor at the Budapest Music Academy to try to save his Jewish students, was, according to Douglas, greatly influenced by Jewish culture, something that her quartet will demonstrate during their performance. “You can hear Eastern European folk music in his work,” she notes.

To assemble her quartet, Douglas drew on peer connections she has made performing across Europe, including as concertmaster of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and assistant concertmaster of both the Philharmonia and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestras, as well as her solo performances with orchestras in the United States at venues like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She brought cellist Ken Ichinose with her from England; recruited second violinist Pasha Sabouri from Pittsburgh; and called upon Curtis classmate, viola player Philip Kramp, to complete the group.

In fact, the oldest member of the quartet is Douglas’ violin, crafted by Italian luthier Giovanni Battista Rogeri in 1699. Douglas allows that it was a bit of a struggle to adjust to the instrument, not least because it is smaller than the ones she was used to playing.  Beginning in the 18th century, violins began increasing in size to their current dimensions.

“More modern instruments might have a bit more one-dimensional sound, and you have to work really hard to get that sound,” she says. “With this instrument, it’s really easy — it has so many colors in it — it’s quite a dark instrument.” Sounds like the right one to shed light on these composers.

IF YOU GO

Weekday Scholars Series: Chamber Music Concert
Feb. 6 at 7:00 p.p.
Rodeph Shalom,
615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia
www.rodephshalom.org/scholars

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