Lessons of hope

When I consider the children rescued by the Kindertransport at the start of the Second World War, I am reminded of the word resilience. We often talk of that word these days – how to instil it in our children, how to discover it for ourselves. Yet here were a group of frightened youngsters torn from their homes, families, language and security, and given no extra support. And somehow, they came to embody resilience and inner strength.

The idea for Kindertransport came from a group of British Jewish and Quaker leaders who appealed to then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain five days after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Their request for unaccompanied Jewish children to be offered sanctuary was debated by the British cabinet and within a week a Bill had been presented to Parliament.

Such speed seems remarkable, but the Home Secretary offered a compelling reason for action; German parents had been questioned on whether they thought Kindertransport a good idea, and had almost unanimously responded in a positive way. Parents were desperate to save their children however they could.

The speed of rescue continued. The first party of nearly 200 children arrived in Harwich on December 2, three weeks after Kristallnacht, and within nine months almost 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish, children travelled to England.

They came mostly from Germany and Austria, with transports from Prague hastily organised after Czechoslovakia was annexed. Later children came from Poland, and Kindertransports carried on until the declaration of war on 1 September 1939.

We know to our horror what happened to those that were left behind. Children died in Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka. The thought of what they underwent is horrifying.

Yet, perhaps we can take comfort in what their peers survived to achieve. Austrian Andre Asriel became a composer and German-born Frank Auerbach grew up to be one of the century’s greatest artists. Rolf Decker, also from Germany, became an American Olympian and international footballer, while Alf Dubs from Czechoslovakia was created Baron Dubs for services to politics. Indeed Lord Dubs is active now in the international refugee movement, most recently sponsoring legislation to bring unaccompanied Syrian and other war-displaced minors to the UK from Calais.

Another child brought by Kindertransport was pianist Lisa Jura whose story became the basis of The Children of Willesden Lane, a best-selling memoir written by her daughter Mona Golabek, which has been used by educationalists to teach children about the Holocaust.

We can only try to imagine how it might feel to send your sons and daughters away; to trust strangers to care for them at a time of such upheaval and survival.

When all solutions to survive were exhausted, all we can do is to tap into our inner strength and to trust and have faith. Perhaps we are all more resilient than we know. Perhaps there is a kernel of strength inside all of us which can sustain anyone through the loneliest, most challenging time. And from this springs the hope for all our futures.

Respect for the performer, regardless of race

The world and human consciousness have come a long way. While researching the social context behind the rise of Motown in the 1960s, I have learnt a great deal about the many artists, athletes and performers of minority ethnic backgrounds who were applauded on stage or in the field yet suffered from snobbery or prejudice in other contexts.

The Enforced Segregation Act was abolished in the US in the 1960s, but prejudices have remained stubborn worldwide. Remember the West Indian cricketers who had to be made “honorary whites” by the government of South Africa in the 1980s so they could play against the national side.

A 1990s clip shows a teenaged Tiger Woods openly discussed the discrimination he faced in golf. As recently as 2008, he had to endure a joke from an anchorman about lynching.

However, I believe it is fair to say that a respect for talent regardless of race, gender or class is finally taking hold. R&B, jazz and soul were long considered music to be enjoyed only by the black community. But this changed, in part due to the extraordinary music of Motown, which came to dominate the charts around the world from the 1960s onwards.

What the musicians of the 1950s and 1960s did have – compared with the singers and jazz artists of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – was the support of the growing civil rights movement. They knew times were changing. They were also very much part of the movement.

“We represented a social environment that was changing,” Mary Wilson of The Supremes said in 2009. “The experience we had known being black was not being bona fide citizens, not being able to drink out of the same water fountains, playing to segregated audiences. When that started to fall away, and you saw that music was one of the components that was helping it fall away, that’s when it really felt like we were doing something significant.”

Berry Gordy’s visionary Motown really was one of the first that attacked the segregation of the music industry when its records began to sell in quantity outside the traditional black markets. The songs and dancing were simply too much fun for young white audiences, already beginning to look for ways to rebel against their parents, to resist.

So now, when we applaud young black men and women on stage we do so with an authentic pleasure engendered by a proper respect for talent where race is irrelevant.

There is no doubt in my mind that this makes the performance more honest for both singer and audience. When we recognise and praise all humanity, we are moving towards a future of greater peace and harmony.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions

At the start of a New Year, classical music needs to stay current

Christmas is a time of tradition: carols by candlelight in ancient churches, tables groaning with lavish Victorian-style feasts; family histories shared and passed down in the rituals we all celebrate.

But then along comes New Year, and we shrug off our old ways in a headlong dash to embrace the new. We seek to renew ourselves. We undertake detoxes and personal spring cleans. We want the latest books, sports, diets, television and technology, new ways to improve ourselves and our lives.

Of course, there is always the danger that we will go a little far and lose some of what was most cherished in the process.

Nowhere, I feel, is this more true than when it comes to classical music. In our haste to adopt new forms of music, played or heard in new ways, are we at risk of abandoning the rich musical heritage which has sustained and informed us for centuries?

It would be naïve not to be concerned at what happens as we constantly look for the new. The American composer and critic Greg Sandow acknowledged the problem recently when he said: “Classical music has grown distant from our wider culture. We don’t connect well with the world. Most of the music we play is from the past, while the people around us are connecting with the culture and concerns of the present.”

In her book The Inner Voice, opera singer Renee Fleming urges a constant search for connection with modern audiences: “We need to spread the passion for music that makes some people such enthusiastic concert and opera-goers…The music itself will never disappear. Beethoven still makes people cheer, Richard Strauss can thrill and Mozart can even develop young minds. It’s our responsibility to learn how to speak to an audience that is less informed about music to give it a reason to want to come and see us instead of going to the movies.”

That ability to be flexible and agile in one’s thinking seems to be vital to surviving the 21st century in whatever field one works. It is as true in information technology or education as in music itself.

Perhaps that is how we will find the answer. By accepting the need for change within classical music rather than elevating it to a unattainable pedestal. We should enjoy Mozart when it is performed in period dress, but also embrace classical collaborations with rap stars.

I recently attended an amazing concert by Renée Fleming and, 5 time Grammy awards-winning jazz musician, Christian McBride. The program ranged from Moonlight sonata to My funny Valentine. Renée sang the famous Pearlfishers duet, solo, accompanied by Christian. Renée did a poll spontaneously with the audience. Half of the audience raised their hands to indicate they came for Renée, while the other half came for Christian McBride.

“Thinking creatively is our business,” says Fleming, and I concur completely. At this time of year when we are already thinking to the future, we are probably being more nimble in our approach to change – in every sphere – than we know.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation

The soprano immortalised, as art imitates art, and imitates life

Few operatic divas become immortalised in novels, but the voice of the great American soprano Renee Fleming is at the heart of the story Bel Canto by US author Ann Patchett. The novel won both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and has now been turned into an opera, premiered appropriately enough at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where Fleming is creative consultant.

The story is set in Lima, Peru, during the Japanese embassy hostage crisis of 1996–1997 and follows the friendships and love affairs which result. The most tragic is between American opera singer Roxane Coss and Katsumi Hosokawa, the chairman of a large Japanese company. They communicate through music as they do not share a language.

This is something I recognise – music as a way to cross barriers and borders. A shared experience through which emotions and passion can be delineated perhaps more beautifully than through words.

Indeed, it was Fleming’s voice rather than her actual physical self which informed the character of Roxanne. Patchett admitted that she had not listened to opera before writing the book.

Roxanne’s physical shape and character were based on Karol Bennett, an acquaintance of Patchett’s who was a singer. But it was that unmistakable Fleming voice which took over, the more Patchett listened as she wrote. The description of Roxanne singing Ave Maria is definitive Fleming: “Her voice was so pure, so light, that it opened up the ceiling and carried their petitions directly to God.”

Subsequently, the pair have met at the Met – Patchett has developed a passion for opera – and collaborated on Fleming’s autobiographical book The Inner Voice. Fleming credits Patchett with “supplying the art while I supplied the nuts and bolts”.

I would argue she is being unfair to herself. Fleming’s undoubted musical artistry is present in everything she does including the creation of The Inner Voice. Pablo Picasso said: “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” To which I would add, that they are then the genesis of art in ways that are equally as disparate.

But those of us in the audience are not without purpose too. As Patchett writes in Bel Canto: “Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. … It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are the spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world’s greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.” 

Witnessing Fleming perform is certainly that. No wonder then that Patchett says Fleming now is Roxanne Coss. “Sometimes,” the author says, “inspiration seems to be retrospective.”

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation

The singer who lives on through her music

How do we want to remembered and live on after death? For Florence Ballard, the young African American woman, the founding member of the most successful American female singing group in history, The Supremes, the answer is probably through music. Not just her own, but also the music she inspired.

Florence Ballard recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who in turn recruited classmate Diana Ross to form The Supremes, with 12 number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1960s and 1970s. At their peak, their popularity worldwide rivalled The Beatles and their success paved the way for future American R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream acclaim.

At the beginning of their career, for the most part, the three women performed equal leads on songs. But as the 1960s progressed Motown boss Berry Gordy, recognising the influence of TV on the sale of music records, saw Ross as the most appropriate figurehead to broaden the group’s appeal from mostly black audiences to white record buyers and concertgoers.

The Supremes had deliberately embraced a more glamorous image than previous black performers. They appeared on stage in detailed make-up and high-fashion gowns and wigs, and performed graceful choreography as Gordy challenged the often prevalent period image of black performers being unrefined. Ross’s cool tone and poise suited that ideal better than Ballard’s strong soulful voice and fiery temperament.

Ballard however began to chafe at the way her band had developed, and started behaving erratically. After she was removed from The Supremes in 1967, she struggled with depression, alcoholism, poverty and a physically abusive relationship over the next nine years. Just after she began a musical comeback, she died of a heart attack at the age of 32.

Yet her contribution to music has never been forgotten. Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Supremes in 1988. And her story has been alluded to by artists as varied as Billy Bragg, the hip-hop artist Nas and the actor Jennifer Hudson.

Ballard may not have had a long or particularly happy life, but her legacy lives on today. It is an extraordinary achievement and perhaps it’s more than she would have dared to dream of.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions

Renée Fleming teaching the world to sing

We all need role models. Whether we aspire to be a great humanitarian or a Nobel prize-winning scientist, a mentor who shows the way (and may even help to smooth the path) is vital.

Mentors in the arts are a particularly strong tradition. The master-disciple relationship is still important in much of Europe, especially in Germany where visual artists such as Joseph Beuys, the iconic sculptor, served as mentors and teachers, building up circles of influence around them. Beuys said: “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.”

Among musicians the notion of leadership through teaching is equally important and is exemplified by opera singer Renée Fleming. Her backing for young singers begins at school level – she is a supporter of the Chicago Public Schools Arts Plan, which is focused on making the arts a dedicated part of the curriculum in schools throughout that city. And in her role as Artistic Advisor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Miss Fleming is developing new mentorship/educational roles there as well.

She also mentors teen vocal students as part of her role as creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This role sees her working with the Merit School of Music, where many students are tuition-free or on scholarship. Miss Fleming gives masterclasses and sometimes uses Skype to stay in touch.

Of her charges, she believes even though not all of these students will become professional singers or musicians, “they will take the skills that they’ve learned in mastering a difficult instrument to the workplace, to the rest of their lives.” Miss Fleming’s approach to tutoring and mentoring has been described as kindness mixed with enthusiasm by some past students.

Taking the idea of educating out of the classroom and on to the streets, Miss Fleming supports an organisation called Sing for Hope which places pianos in public spaces in New York City each year.

It works year-round to bring music and the arts to under-resourced schools, hospitals, and community centres throughout the city nurturing a roster of hundreds of artists, amateur and professional alike – from opera singers to jazz musicians, actors to dancers, painters to puppeteers. The artists are encouraged to participate in volunteer service programmes, where they bring the power of their art directly to those who need it most. Miss Fleming has performed repeatedly at their annual gala, and lends support and guidance throughout the year.

Of particular joy to fans of Miss Fleming, as well as students, are her Masterclasses, which she carries out whenever and wherever in the world she can. They reveal her natural grace, generosity, warmth and humour, and are inspiring and enjoyable to watch for anyone.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to learn that she often says how much she enjoys and treasures this aspect of her art. Miss Fleming considers herself extremely fortunate to have been given guidance by Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, and Beverly Sills as her own career developed.

The magnificent American soprano Jessye Norman once said: “One needs more than ambition and talent to make a success of anything, really. There must be love and a vocation.”

Miss Fleming has inspired so many musicians in their careers. She is a remarkable role model, and all art is made richer by her generosity.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation

Renée Fleming: a shining example of cultural exchange

What makes cross-cultural exchange so important for society? I believe it is a movement for peace, a way for countries and their citizens to reach out and engage with each other, finding common ground.

This sense of unity is often best expressed through artistic exchange: exhibitions which travel the world exposing us all to the masters of modern art or Impressionists. Think of the theatre and dance productions which tour the cities of China as well as wowing the crowds who enjoy Broadway or London’s West End or books that become bestsellers in multiple translations encouraging us all (from Moscow to Sydney) to share in the latest questions of philosophy at the same time.

With that in mind, is it wrong to think great artists can be the best ambassadors for their country? The soprano Renée Fleming is a good example of this. She exemplifies the best qualities of her home nation, the United States – she is hardworking, positive and an advocate for the life-changing power of education. And I admire her versatility: a quality often found in American singers is that they are happy to perform across numerous platforms – in concerts and at recitals, for example.

Miss Fleming is also at home anywhere in the world, sharing her extraordinary talent with musicians and fans.

Brought up in music, Miss Fleming’s parents were high school vocal music teachers. She has said she cannot remember a time when she was without it. “We performed together as a family, sang on road trips in the car, and shared our school concerts, and church choir performances. In my early teen years, music became an absolute necessity for me, because I composed songs when I was too shy to express myself easily in any other way.”

That was the ground work. But her development as an artist came through international travel. Miss Fleming won a Fulbright scholarship, and travelled to London where she admired the Chagalls in the National Gallery and went to the theatre with half-price tickets almost every night for five weeks, before she went on to Germany to study.

Now, she travels the globe singing for royalty and governmental officials, for Nobel laureates, the Olympics, and even Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee. She undertook a recital tour of China in 2003, offering masterclasses in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Taipei.

Of this experience, she has said: “By sharing my experience and knowledge, I hope I am helping to expand the boundaries, ever so slightly, of what it means to be an opera singer. Performing in what began as a western European art form, when I sing in capitals all over the world, my very American identity, and my love of investigating music of all kinds, may challenge some older notions of what a soprano has to be.”

Miss Fleming is also on the advisory board of the Polyphony Foundation which works to bridge divisions and foster concord by bringing together Arab and Jewish youth in Israel through the power of classical music-making.

This winter, she will be in London at the Royal Opera House to perform in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. In a time of global upheaval and mistrust, it is comforting to think of artists such as her travelling the world to share the enlightening power of music, which still has the power to comfort and unite us.

One must hope that universal ambassadors of culture never cease to spread joy and help us to understand each other’s worlds. Right now, it feels like we need them very much.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation

A love of literacy can be the key to success and happiness

I am a great believer in the transformative power of reading. There is overwhelming evidence that literacy has a significant relationship with a person’s happiness and success.

In particular, research has indicated clearly the dangers of poor literacy and the benefits of improving it for the individual, the community, the workforce and the nation.

Moreover, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, reading for pleasure has been revealed as the most important indicator of the future success of a child. Improvements in literacy – at any point in life – can have a profound effect on an individual. As Franz Kafka says: “A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

But books need champions, especially in this era of fast-consumption television and distracting computer games.

And one very special champion is the legendary soprano Miss Renee Fleming, who was honoured by The New York Public Library as a “Library Lion” for her passionate love of books. The Library Lion is an annual award given during a gala in celebration of “exceptional men and women” in the arts and general culture.

Miss Fleming has written her own book: The Inner Voice, which was published in 2004. It is a frank account of growing up, learning her craft, and life as a world-class opera singer. The book was greeted with enthusiasm. She was lauded not just for her frankness in revealing just what it takes to make a star (“Not just natural talent and hard work, but tenacity, resilience, and luck”) but also the beguiling way in which it was written.

She has been featured in promotional campaigns for the Association of American Publishers (Get Caught Reading), and the Magazine Publishers of America’s READ poster campaign for the American Library Association. In that, she was depicted as Dvorak’s Rusalka (The Little Mermaid). She has also applauded the work of Literacy Partners in New York.

Miss Fleming has explained her passion for books: “Reading was a lifeline to me in childhood. Because I was innately timid, the world of books enabled me to dream and imagine the outside world, and what my life might hold. When I was in third grade, a librarian put CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in my hand and changed my young life. I then read in the dark, on long car trips, in class — whenever I could.”

This a feeling I know very well. The most inspirational gifts I receive are usually books. The joy of sharing favourite titles with friends, and allowing each other the mental space to turn over the first page is very rewarding as Very often, a good book can change one’s life in unexpected way.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation

Syria’s children and a fine tradition of refuge

I have been very moved by the news about the Dubs amendment passed in spring 2016: Britain has agreed to take lone children who do not necessarily have family ties to the UK and are under 13, and girls or orphans who are fleeing warzones and had reached the European Union by March 20.

As these first children arrive from the migrant camps, it is worth thinking of how poignant the tradition of this legislation is. Lord Dubs, who sponsored the parliamentary amendment which enabled the humanitarian move, was himself brought to the UK as a refugee from war.

He was brought to Britain from Czechoslovakia on one of the Kindertransport trains in 1939, the operation that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, rescuing 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany and other East European countries.

Children sent by Kindertransport from Germany were those most in peril: teenagers who were in concentration camps or in danger of arrest, Polish children or teenagers threatened with deportation, children in Jewish orphanages, children whose parents were too impoverished to keep them, or children with a parent in a concentration camp. They could only take a small sealed suitcase with no valuables and only ten marks or less in money. Some children had nothing but a manila tag with a number on the front and their name on the back, others were issued with a numbered identity card with a photo.

That image of a child labelled like a parcel has informed more of our culture than one might at first think. Consider Paddington Bear, whose creator Michael Bond has revealed his enduringly popular creation was drawn from his own memories of the wartime refugees.

And a recent play at London’s Chickenshed Theatre also delved into the subject with a play called Kindertransport, which followed the story of nine-year-old Eva. The play explored how she was torn between her German heritage and her need to wipe the Kindertransport experience from her memory. With life imitating art, one of the lead actors Michelle Collins revealed her own grandfather had been a Belgian child refugee.

Inspiringly, despite such a desperate start to their new lives, many of these children went on to make a very meaningful contribution to life in their new countries. Lord Dubs has devoted his life to politics, and others grew up to become scientists and writers. Frank Auerbach is one of the UK’s most illustrious artists. Walter Kohn became a physicist and Nobel laureate. Herbert Wise from Austria led a successful life as a British theatre and television director.

Will any of the young refugees arriving in UK go on to such fulfilling and purposeful lives? We cannot and must not ask too much. Instead let us think not what they can do for us, but be glad of what we can do for them.

The biggest challenge is how to support them to recover from the trauma and to be integrated into a completely different culture and lifestyle. That way they will have the best chance to become a productive and fully participating member of society.

However, in this day and age, with political and economic uncertainty everywhere, and mixed with the threat of terrorism, it is inevitable that we ask ourselves what price are we willing to pay for humanity? How do we find balance?

In helping the refugee children, we learn about our own hearts. A friend once told me that if we see someone fallen on the pavement, we can either walk around them or lend a helping hand. It is that simple. We see the best of ourselves in the hope that we foster, the compassion we give and the lives that we change. One hopes that tradition of giving refuge will always be sustained. Humanity depends on it.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation

Mona Golabek’s timely one-woman play puts a spotlight on Kindertransport

The Pianist of Willesden Lane, written by Mona Golabek, is a remarkable and moving one-woman show that explores the story of her mother. She was among the thousands of Jewish children who were saved from the Nazis between 1938 and 1940 thanks to the Kindertransport scheme.

It couldn’t be more timely as we face a new refugee crisis. Children are once again being forced to flee their homes, this time from the bombardments of Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

The Kindertransport rescue took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War and was organised by World Jewish Relief, then called The Central British Fund for German Jewry.

The UK took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig and placed them in foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust.

It’s not hard to imagine how bewildered and frightened they must have been, forced to be separated from their family and uprooted at such a young age to a new country with a new culture and language. They were often alone, not knowing what was happening to their loved ones as the war progressed.

Those fears are explored in The Pianist of Willesden Lane which tells the story of Lisa Jura, a prodigy who grew up in Vienna dreaming of making her debut in the Musikverein, playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto, just like her mother did.

Instead in 1938, aged 14, she was forced to flee to UK leaving her own mother, who told her: “Hold on to your music. Let music be your friend.”

The war years saw Lisa housed in a hostel in Willesden Lane in north London with a score of other Kindertransport children. Here she found a piano in the basement and played her beloved Grieg to drown out and to defy the Blitz.

After the war, Lisa married and moved to the US, where she had two daughters – one of whom is Mona Golabek.

Golabek is now 61 and grew up to be a pianist herself. She was inspired to tell her mother’s story when she was booked to perform the same Grieg Piano Concerto, the piece Lisa had so longed to play in Vienna.

I’m not surprised by this Proustian connection. The concerto has an emotional pull at its core. It is both gorgeously lyrical and yet also bittersweet; there is melancholy and yearning woven throughout the melodic contours. Who could ignore such a siren call?

In her show, Golabek performs words and music: “It’s very challenging,” she admits. “But every piece of music tells a story, as my mother used to say; so it seemed relatively comfortable to become a storyteller myself.”

Her mother’s story has been shared among US schoolchildren now – and, Golabek points out: “I’ve seen young people of the 21st century overcome by the story of a Jewish teenager in the Second World War, because they relate to it. Often the students say to me afterwards: ‘If Lisa could do it, I can do it.’

“We’re living in an almost broken world, in many senses. The tragedy of what we see repeating itself in the Syrian refugee crisis is heart-breaking, and the tragedy of seeing disenfranchised people join movements to bring such sadness to others is just terrible. I think we really need these kinds of stories to remind ourselves of man’s humanity to man.”

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation