Poster Anat Spiegel
Anat Spiegel
Minnesota's World Stage

Israeli-American composer Anat Spiegel's 'My Four Mothers' premieres at Cedar Commissions

Anat Spiegel's path to Minnesota has been a long one. Born in Israel, she left there at 21 after her military service and spent 18 years living in Amsterdam, composing and making music for a living.

Just a year ago, she and her American husband (also a composer) uprooted to the Twin Cities, bringing their two young children with them.

Spiegel is still adjusting to the subzero temperatures and brutal wind chills that are a relative rarity in mainland Europe.

But she has wasted no time in plunging headlong into the vibrant Minnesota music scene. Her first U.S. premiere is happening Friday as part of the Cedar Commissions at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

Spiegel's My Four Mothers was one of six works commissioned by the center in its annual flagship program fostering the work of Minnesota-based composers.

It's a piece that looks back at a particularly traumatic period of her Jewish heritage, from the perspective of her family's new life in the United States.

"I was born in Israel, went to school there, went into the army there," she says. "And, of course, I was aware of the Holocaust as part of my nation's history."

It was, though, something Spiegel had never been able to fully confront and investigate before coming to America — the history was too raw, the city of Amsterdam too embroiled in the tangled strands of Holocaust history to enable objectivity.

"While living there, I never felt that I really had the tools or the wish to deal with ghosts from the past," she says. "I felt like it would alienate me from my day-to-day life in the city."

About 4,000 miles away from Europe and farther still from the Middle East, memories and impressions suddenly snapped into focus, however, and the need for a personal reckoning beckoned.

"During the process of writing my new piece I visited Amsterdam again," she says. "And that was actually the first time I ever went to the Holocaust Museum there."

My Four Mothers focuses on women who have had a formative influence on Spiegel's life and helped her clarify her understanding of what happened in the Holocaust.

French writer Charlotte Delbo, philosopher Sarah Kofman and painter Charlotte Salomon all get a movement to themselves, in a piece that lasts a total of 30 minutes.

The effect of the Holocaust on their lives — Delbo was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Salomon died in the gas chambers there, as did Kofman's rabbi father — is reflected in Spiegel's music, which uses excerpts from their writings.

The final movement of My Four Mothers is devoted to Spiegel's grandmother Dvora Grünberger-Reichstul, who survived the Holocaust but had all her immediate family killed in it.

"She died when I was 12 but was central to my family's life," Spiegel says. "The text of the last movement comes from a poem I wrote in Hebrew about her, and the other movements are in English."

Having four women as the focus of her piece is no coincidence, Spiegel adds.

"We know a lot about the male perspective of World War II, but the female version is not something I have heard a lot. The sheer darkness and intensity of their experience is overwhelming."

Spiegel is coy about attaching stylistic labels on the music that she writes. My Four Mothers has strong classical ingredients in it, she says, but also generous dashes of jazz.

It also is written for an unusual combination of performers. Spiegel features centrally, singing the main vocal and playing an Indian harmonium, a keyboard instrument with hand-operated bellows.

Joining her onstage are violinist Isabel Dammann and cellist Mikaela Marget, both of whom also have parts to sing.

"When I've played bits of the music to people, the word that came back was 'haunting,'" she says.

"I was playing a lot with tension, and how long can we hold the idea of tension without feeling very uncomfortable. It's a form of meditation on difficult topics that are hard for us to be with."

Although Spiegel emphasizes that she still feels like a "newcomer" to the Twin Cities music scene, she already is impressed by what she has found here.

"People here love music and are very open-minded," she says. "Amsterdam is quite a snobbish city when it comes to music; there is so much going on. But people here are genuinely interested, and they show up."

And it was the freedom of expression that the Cedar Commissions provided that gave Spiegel the impetus to tackle themes that she had previously found "too scary."

"Dealing with very personal themes is very new for me, and the three composers for Night 1 of the commissions worked together from the get-go," she says. "It's really helped my landing here and kept me focused on my musical practices."

Although the Holocaust is among the darkest chapters in human history, she is hopeful that My Four Mothers also has an element of positivity attached to it.

"I don't think the work is desperately depressing," she says. "The uplift comes from what these women achieved in terrible times, and in that process there is always healing, power and light."

Event Details

What: Cedar Commissions Night 1: Ilan Blanck, Freaque and Anat Spiegel
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21
Tickets: $10; $15 for two-show pass

This is an all-ages show.

Learn more about Night 2 in our interview with composer Tensae Fayise.

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