"The show was about how art and music are really important, even in the darkest times."
-- Michael Caden O'Hara Levin, age 9
ABOUT TWO PIANOS
The setting: Germany 1933
While Jews were its obsession, the Third Reich had numerous targets it sought to eliminate in its drive for a “pure Aryan” society meant to redeem a racially-corrupt world -- homosexuals, Slavs, “Bolsheviks” and people with mental or physical disabilities, plus jazz bands and other groups’ perceived “degenerate influence” on German kultur. The Reich preached a message of fear to those threatened by the Great Depression, in-migration, and decreased status in a changing world. It pursued these groups -- first cautiously by steps towards social-economic exclusion, then aggressively by deportation and resettlement, ultimately by enslavement or extermination. Its refrain was that contamination by “alien” minorities kept Germany from becoming great again.
Two Pianos’ counter-theme -- art as resistance to oppression or division, and the power of music as a way to preserve free personal space despite government persecution or complicity -- applies to any group targeted by any regime today.
In Berlin, a group petitions for a separate organization for suddenly-unemployed Jewish artists to perform for Jewish-only audiences. The “Culture-League of German Jews” (Kulturbund Deutscher Juden) is approved by Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Enlightenment. Kulturbund chapters soon form in some 60 cities, by 1935 becoming the sole public access to culture for Jews still in Germany. Early members of its Leipzig branch include two young Jewish concert pianists and their music-loving businessman husbands.
A Concert Documentary
The performance program based on true stories was developed by Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin with the Judische Kulturbund Project (Washington DC), which helped launch its June 2018 Philadelphia PA premiere. Live classical music, narration and archival projections plus a portable companion Exhibit follow the friendship and careers of Jewish pianists Anna (Burstein) Bieler-Suwalski (1908-2003) and Halina (Neuman) Schulsinger (1908-1999), who played Leipzig Kulturbund concerts under the Third Reich. Selections from those concerts are performed on two grand pianos by Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro, artists-in-exile whose stories echo the characters'. A "Back Story" presentation-with-music about how Two Pianos came to be deepens these stories.
Two Pianos highlights its characters' tenacity, passion and devotion to craft. As talented student “alien residents” at Leipzig's famed Conservatory founded by Felix Mendelssohn, Anna and Halina master new languages and cultures. As young Jewish mothers they concertize while juggling child-care and growing Nazi restrictions. Their paths soon diverge through flight from Germany on one hand, and deportation, the Warsaw Ghetto and forced-labor camps on the other. They reconnect as naturalized American citizens, teachers and performers, remaining close friends the rest of their long lives.
After the Premiere
June 2019: Two Pianos programs are part of Leipzig Germany's recurring "Schalom Week" welcoming former Jewish residents and their descendants. One performance is at the Conservatory where Anna and Halina met and studied. Audience materials include an illustrated 32-page German-language brochure that replicates key parts of the Philadelphia Exhibit.
October 2019: The Institute of Jazz Studies (Rutgers University-Newark NJ) sponsors Two Pianos with new audio/video clips, an English-language Exhibit brochure, and an expanded Exhibit. The performance includes the story of Halina and her daughter Jola, from their forced 1938 deportation, through the Warsaw Ghetto and labor/DP camps, to their eventual Newark homes.
May 2022: Our first open-air, first post-COVID performance at Untermyer Gardens (Yonkers NY) connects Anna's sister Rebecca's 1927 Beethoven performance at Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus with NY millionaire/Progressive reformer Samuel Untermyer; the righteous gentiles who helped Halina and her family escape the Warsaw Ghetto; and Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
For a checklist for venues considering hosting live Two Pianos performances or virtual alternatives, click here.
Anna Burstein Bieler and Halina Neuman Schulsinger,
Grado Italy 1936