Two Pianos: Playing for Life uses music, live readings and narration to depict the story of two female pianists, who played for all-Jewish audiences after the Nazis had banned Jewish musicians from German public performances. The program premieres on June 9 in Philadelphia at the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of the Settlement Music School.
Romanian-born Anna Burstein and Polish-born Halina Neuman met in Germany in 1926 at the Leipzig Conservatory. Seven years later, by the spring of 1933, Hitler’s new regime was moving to exclude Jews from German life. Doors to orchestras with Jewish conductors were padlocked. Jewish performers and professors were attacked in the press and interrupted by uniformed thugs shouting, “Schweine Jude!” Their concerts and lectures were cancelled “to ensure public safety.” Then, new laws began excluding Jews from government employment, including over 50 city orchestras. Within two years, Jews were legally barred from nearly all aspects of German economic, political and social life.
The Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture Association) was formed by dismissed Jewish artists, enabling them to continue performing before segregated all-Jewish audiences. It was approved by the Nazis in July 1933, and branches quickly spread from Berlin to over 60 German cities, including Leipzig. Anna Burstein and Halina Neuman played two-piano concerts with the Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund under the Third Reich.
Years later, in 1938, Burstein came to Philadelphia. She was among the exiles who fled the Third Reich to ultimately enrich their new American home with their talent. For 15 years, she performed at local venues, receiving strong reviews. In 1945, she joined Settlement’s piano faculty, where she taught for nearly four decades.
Neuman did not arrive in this country until 1951, after surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish Home Army uprising, labor and DP camps and post-war refugee stops. Finally, she followed her daughter to the United States, and three months later, gave her first American concert. She retired as a piano professor at Rutgers University.
The live readings in “Two Pianos” are based on first-person interviews with Burstein and Neuman, conducted 40 years ago by Burstein’s daughter and son-in-law, Nora Jean and Michael Levin. The couple spent decades researching, organizing and recapturing the family’s story in full context. Co-producers of “Two Pianos,” the Levins also narrate part of the performance with Neuman’s grandson, Dr. Kenneth Hoffman. Neuman’s grandsons contributed material to the program, as well as to the exhibit set up next to the recital hall, which includes some of the women’s original documents and memorabilia.
The music for the one-hour program will be performed by the acclaimed Russian-born, Wisconsin-based Four Hands piano duo Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro. Having met at Israel’s Jerusalem Conservatory, Varshavski and Shapiro went on to win numerous competitions and have now been playing together for two decades. Showcased on two grand pianos, they will perform excerpts from works played by Burstein and Neuman under and after the Nazis, including selections from Arensky, Brahms, Toch and Chopin. With their artist-in-exile stories echoing those of the characters they portray, Varshavski and Shapiro will also perform live readings based on the first-person interviews of Burstein and Neuman.
“Two Pianos” is being presented by The Jüdische Kulturbund Project, which seeks to keep the legacy of the Kulturbund alive through educational programs and performances like this one. The Project connects examples of Jewish artists living under Nazi rule with artists facing oppression around the world today.
“We are so excited to bring this story to life,” said Gail Prensky, creator, executive producer and project director of The Jüdische Kulturbund Project. “Music sustained these women and fueled their will, not just to survive during the darkest hours of Nazi Germany, but to thrive.”
“Two Pianos: Playing for Life” will premiere at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 9, in Presser Hall at the Settlement Music School’s Mary Louise Curtis Branch, 416 Queen Street, Philadelphia. A discussion, as well as a reception to meet the performers, will follow the program. Admission is free, but reservations are required because seating is limited. For more information, contact co-producer Michael Levin at [email protected] or at 202-828-3212.