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Pianist, orchestra give WWII era work new life

Duluth native Alexander Sandor (left) practices with the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra in Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica on Monday. Sandor will be the piano soloist when the orchestra presents the U.S. premiere of Concerto for Piano and Winds by Leo Smit. Smit died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1943. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Duluth native Alexander Sandor practices on a piano in Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica on Monday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Warren Friesen conducts the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra in Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica on Monday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Duluth native Alexander Sandor practices with the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra in Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica on Monday. Sandor will be the piano soloist when the orchestra presents the U.S. premiere of Concerto for Piano and Winds by Leo Smit. Smit died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1943. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

A young Alexander Sandor grew up in Superior immersed in piano music.

From inside a dressing room at the College of St. Scholastica, he recalled reclining under the piano while his father played the ragtime music they both loved.

"I could feel the vibrations of the music throughout the soft tissue of my body," he said, "and it tickled."

Now 42, Sandor will take to the stage with the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra Thursday night, unearthing a piece of music for the work's U.S. concert debut at St. Scholastica's Mitchell Auditorium at 7:30 p.m.

Leo Smit's "Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra" is the feature selection in the second of four LSCO concerts that each include the work of a different Jewish composer who perished in Nazi captivity during the Holocaust.

"We're in our 30th season and we've always done a lot of music other orchestras don't do," said Warren Friesen, the conductor and artistic director who is forever reaching for new ground with the orchestra he founded. He called his pursuit of the Smit piece from a small publisher overseas "bittersweet."

"It's almost 78 years late finding its way to a U.S. premiere," Friesen said of the Dutch composer's piece. "It should have been done a long time ago."

In Sandor's hands, Smit's piece from 1937 is a dizzy mix of climbing and falling that finds Sandor wailing on the piano and the orchestra answering back.

While spending numerous hours since March taking the piece "to the woodshed" — sweating his way through the flurries of chords and staccato runs — Sandor came to find "an athletic piece," he said.

"I liked it immediately and as I've gotten to know it I love it," he added. "It's got this perpetual-motion feel to it."

Stoutly built and well-groomed, wearing shorts and sandals for rehearsal, Sandor unfurled the talent that built his reputation as one of the Northland's gifted pianists. An adjunct faculty member in the University of Wisconsin-Superior music department from which he graduated, Sandor owns somewhat of a legendary origin story locally.

Known in music circles for his precocious playing, he was summoned as a 21-year-old to play Beethoven's Emperor Concerto for the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra just six hours before the performance. The scheduled performer had been injured and ruled out by a doctor. A 1996 story in the Duluth News Tribune noted that Sandor filled in and "played with impressive control and passion."

"Alex is kind of legendary around here," Friesen said. "He's an amazing pianist — a monster pianist."

In Thursday's performance, Sandor's wife, Kathryn Sandor, is featured on the flute in the same piece — one written shortly before life turned difficult for Smit. When the Nazis invaded the low countries below Germany, performances of Smit's works were banned because of his Jewish ancestry. Soon, he could no longer teach, and later both he and his wife were executed in a concentration camp in 1943.

When reached to give perspective about the concert series, Deborah Petersen-Perlman welcomed the theme. Petersen-Perlman is an associate professor of communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth and is instrumental in the local Jewish community as a past president of the Temple Israel Board of Trustees and current chairwoman of the Baeumler Kaplan Holocaust Commemoration committee that annually remembers the Holocaust with a series of events.

"I am glad the LSCO is performing these works," she said. "There is a lot of rich material about the composers and performers who lost their lives during the Holocaust, particularly those who were imprisoned at the Terezin ghetto."

Terezin was a settlement camp and an elaborate ruse the Third Reich held aloft as a livable community, but through which many Jews, including many artists, traveled on their way to killing camps. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Of the approximately 140,000 Jews transferred to Theresienstadt, nearly 90,000 were deported to points further east and almost certain death. Roughly 33,000 died in Theresienstadt itself."

Friesen views performing the works of Smit and other Jewish composers as the artistic community's way to thumb a nose at Adolf Hitler and the Nazis' effort to erase culture and history.

Neither Sandor nor Friesen are Jewish, but Sandor appreciates the opportunity to breath life into the work.

"To be playing this in Duluth," Alex Sandor said, "makes it comforting to know Hitler was all wrong."

Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra

Remaining 2016 season:

  • Second Concert: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Mitchell Auditorium, College of St. Scholastica, with pianist Alexander Sandor and flautist Kathryn Sandor
  • Third Concert — 7:30 p.m. July 28, Mitchell Auditorium, with violinist De Ann Letourneau
  • Fourth Concert — 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4 , Mitchell Auditorium, with music for pantomime staged by Jean Sramek and Ann Gumpper

Tickets available at the door beginning nightly at 6:30 p.m.

NOTE: Tonight's concert is still on, despite power outages and storm damage.

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