Published: 11/02/2016 10:25 - Updated: 11/02/2016 14:28

Strengthening the spirit with the power of music

German pianist Maraike Bruning.
German pianist Maraike Bruning.

LESSONS from the Holocaust about the power of music and the strength of the human spirit will be shared by pianist Maraike Brüning in her latest concet for Inverness Chamber Music on Friday February 12.

Originally from Stuttgart, Brüning has become a popular guest performer for ICM since she moved to Glasgow to study the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

For her next performance for ICM’s At One With Music regular lunchtime concert at the Spectrum Centre, Brüning will tell the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the concert pianist and teacher who was the oldest known Holocaust survivor when she died in February 2014 at the aged of 110.

Born into a Jewish family in Prague, as a child she met such major cultural figures as writer Franz Kafka and composers including Gustav Mahler.

Although many of her friends and relations left the country after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, Herz-Sommer stayed on to care for her sick mother and in 1943 was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp along with her young son.

There she was one of the musicians ordered to perform concerts for staff, prisoners and visiting delegations from the Red Cross, who were invited to the camp by the Nazis in an effort to dispel rumours about extermination camps.

Although some 33,000 inmates died in the camp with many more deported to Auschwitz an other extermination camps, she and her sin survived the war, unlike many of her relations, including her husband Leopold.

For Brüning, Herz-Sommer’s belief that music had been a key factor in her survival has made the Czech pianist something of a personal heroine.

"She even said: ‘Maybe we didn’t need much food because we had music.’ It showed what music could do in times when everything else seemed to be falling apart. I found it really inspiring," Brüning said.

"Her story has been part of my life for five or six years.

"I read a biography of her which really impressed me massively and had a big influence on my approach to my studies.

"I’m always looking for new ways of making music more accessible for audiences. I’ve worked with lighting designers and dancers and actors, and this was one of those ideas because in her life the Chopin Etudes were so important and saved her sanity and life.

"When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, she just threw herself into practising all the Etudes, so it was exciting to learn some of the Etudes and combine them in a little project od my own as part of a Master’s course and I’ve developed it further now for external concerts as well."

One regret is that Brüning has been unable to hear any recordings of Herz-Sommer performing in her prime.

"Unfortunately, there’s not much left," Brüning said.

"She played a lot for the radio before the war but a lot of that was lost, so what is available is her in old age. I tried to get an idea of her as a musician, but she must have been an incredible musician at the time.

"She was the youngest pianist to be accepted to the German conservatoire in Prague. She was just 17 when she entered there and she played with the giants of the modern orchestra. She must have been a leading figure of her time. But she wasn’t interested in fame. She was always about the music and connecting with people."

As Friday’s concert shows, with both musicians having been brought up in the German classical tradition, their musical education followed a similar pattern, despite being separated by almost a century.

"A lot of it is the reportoire I was growing up with as well – Brahms and Mozart and especially Schubert and Bach. Especially in Germany where I studied before, those were the composers who were at the core of education," Brüning said.

"She did play a lot of contemporary Czech music as well and she premiered music that friends of hers had composed, so she was very interested in that as well.

"It’s a very touching story because it’s not all dark. Her productivity and optimism was what made her survive as well. Of course it’s a Holocaust story, but for me it feels like a story about humanity and about positivity and forgiveness and all the lessons I learnt from her are still so relevant today.

"For me, being German, her story has a certain side to it, but it’s not all about that. It’s far more about what we can learn from her today."

Maraike Brüning is the guest performer at Inverness Chamber Music’s At One With Music lunchtime concert at the Spectrum Centre on Friday February 12. The concert starts at 1pm and will last about 55 minutes. Admission costs £6 for adults and £1 for children.

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