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April 7, 2009
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A stone from Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria serves as inspiration for musicians as they rehearse the oratorio.
Drake musicians to perform Holocaust memorial oratorio 

A stone from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp -- where Nazis forced prisoners to extract rocks from a quarry with their bare hands -- is on display as Drake University musicians rehearse a Holocaust memorial oratorio.

A student picked up the stone on a visit to the camp last year as part of the Drake Choir's European tour.

"We're displaying the rock for inspiration every day until we finish the piece," said Aimee Beckmann-Collier, director of choral studies at Drake. 

On Sunday, April 19, Beckmann-Collier will conduct Drake's four choirs, a faculty and student orchestra and members of the Heartland Youth Chorus in a performance of "To Be Certain of the Dawn" at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines.

The 278 musicians performing the piece are collecting stones for a Holocaust memorial being developed by ninth graders at Harlan High School in Harlan, Iowa. 

Each member of the audience is invited to bring a small stone to the concert for the memorial, which will be constructed on the grounds of the school as part of a Holocaust project for an English class.

The ninth graders decided to build the memorial out of stones after watching the movie "Schindler's List," which shows stones being placed on Schindler's grave as a sign of remembrance and respect.

"We're honored to join in this project," Beckmann-Collier said after contacting Harlan teacher Randi Daniels. "We have two Harlan alums in the Drake Choir (Gabe Early and Patrick Carroll). Plus, Jeff Johanssen, a current Harlan senior, will be coming to Drake to major in music this fall.   

"The Early and Carroll families have volunteered to transport the stones collected at the Civic Center to Harlan High School," she added. "We won't get the school close to 6 million -- the number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust -- but we will help."  


Oratorio performance features pre-concert talk

The performance of "To Be Certain of the Dawn," composed by Stephen Paulus with text by Michael Dennis Browne," will start at 3 p.m. April 19, at the Civic Center, 221 Walnut St. 

Paulus and Browne will give a pre-concert talk at 2 p.m. in the East Lobby of the Civic Center. 

The Rev. Michael O'Connell and the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis commissioned the oratorio as a gift of healing to the Jewish community and as a witness to the importance of teaching about the Holocaust. It was premiered in November 2005 by the Minnesota Orchestra, which recently has recorded the work.  

"It's a powerful piece of music," Beckmann-Collier said. "The work presents many possibilities not only for learning about the Holocaust, but also for reflection on our role as present-day global citizens in making choices about whether or not we'll involve ourselves in confronting the hatred, exclusion and genocide that afflict people around the world."


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Stephen Paulus (seated at piano) and Michael Dennis Browne (standing) confer with Drake students on the piece.

Study of the Holocaust inspires musicians


To prepare for the performance, a group of the musicians traveled to Washington, D.C., to tour the U.S. Holocaust Museum, thanks to funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines. 


Beckmann-Collier also arranged a speaker series at Drake that featured Ann Millan, a Holocaust Museum historian who gave a lecture on Nazi propaganda, and Peter Pintus, a Holocaust survivor who received a standing ovation after describing his experiences in a concentration camp. Composer Paulus and librettist Browne also have talked with Drake students on several occasions.


In addition, Browne will give a free, public lecture Friday, April 17, about his experiences in interfaith dialogue during the six years in which he and Paulus worked on the oratorio. His presentation, titled "A Different Kind of Belonging: Listening to the Voices of Interfaith," will start at noon in St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Student Center, 1150 28th St.


The Drake Choir has created a blog about the oratorio project, which includes information about the various presentations, as well as students' reflections. Access the blog at http://www.tobecertain.tk/


Tickets for the April 19 performance of "To Be Certain of the Dawn" are $7 for students and $15 for non-students. They are available at the Drake Fine Arts Box Office at 515-271-3841, the Civic Center Box Office at 246-2300 and TicketMaster at 243-1888.