A song of instability, possibility In 'Vessels of Courage and Hope,' composer Shulamit Ran recalls a Baltimore ship's role in the founding of Israel.


Composer Shulamit Ran was born in the same year as the state of Israel, her homeland, which makes her an ideal person to write an orchestral work commemorating its golden anniversary.

The genesis of "Vessels of Courage and Hope," which will be premiered next weekend by the BSO, occurred more than two years ago when the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer received a call from David Zinman. The BSO's music director was asking for a work recognizing the role of a Baltimore ship, the S.S. President Warfield, in the formation of the state of Israel.

"It's part of my general background; I grew up with it," says Ran of the refugee ships that awakened the world's attention to the situation of Holocaust survivors without homelands.

Her parents were members of the Aliyah, the Zionist youth movement that brought Jews to Palestine in the '30s to drain its swamps and sow its fields. Her father was from Berlin, her mother from Lithuania, and "They saw the writing on the wall," says Ran from her home in Sycamore, Ill., about 70 miles west of Chicago. Her parents' early attachment to what would become Israel meant that they survived the mass slaughter of Jews in Europe.

From 1928 to 1942, the Warfield was the flagship of Baltimore's Old Bay Line. Requisitioned by the U.S. Navy for war duty, it became a command ship during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. After the war, it was bought by Haganah, the Jewish underground army, and refitted as a blockade runner to enable war refugees to enter the British-occupied territory of Palestine.

On the night of July 18, 1947, the ship, carrying 4,515 mostly German Holocaust refugees, was attacked and boarded by British troops, who killed three passengers. Before the Warfield surrendered, however, she raised a flag with the Star of David and her new name -- Exodus -- emblazoned on it.

News of the forced transfer of her passengers to prison ships aroused the world's outrage. Even greater public outcry came when the British returned the refugees to Germany. This, more than anything, was a turning point for international recognition of the problem of Jewish refugees.

"Vessels of Courage and Hope" is part of a six-part memorial to the ship and the formation of the state of Israel. It was initiated by Barry S. Lever, 63, a Pikesville periodontist. Along with Ran's symphonic poem, Lever's project has included:

* A scale model of the ship for the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

* A commemorative postage stamp issued by the Israeli government.

* A historical marker installed on the waterfront arcade of Baltimore's World Trade Center.

* A documentary, narrated by Morley Safer, on the Warfield incident. Lever was associate producer of the Maryland Public Television program.

* A needlepoint tapestry, which will be unveiled at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this weekend.

Ran was born in Tel Aviv and came to the United States at 14 to study on a scholarship provided by the Mannes College of Music in New York and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. A student of the Israeli composer Paul Ben Haim and American composers Norman Dello Joio and Ralph Shapey, she has taught at the University of Chicago since 1973. She also has been composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Lyric Opera.

She is best known for abstract, atmospheric music, such as the symphony for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991.

In recent years, however, she has created a body of work with narrative elements, the most important being "All the Chimneys," a cycle of poems by the Holocaust writer Nelly Sachs, and her opera "Between Two Worlds," based on the drama "The Dybbuk" by Yiddish writer S. Ansky. The opera premiered last year by the Chicago Lyric Opera. A piano trio called "Soliloquy," based on themes from the opera, was played in Baltimore by the Peabody Trio in March.

"I have written a lot of music with extramusical meanings, but they were text settings," she says. "But in this situation, there was no text."

She did not want to run through events: "Now they are boarding the ship, now the British are coming, now they fight," she recites. "Instead, I wanted to create a state of mind, a state of feeling." So her symphonic work is in two sections: one about instability (fleeing), one about possibility (the future). Hence its title, "Vessels of Courage and Hope."

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

What: "Vessels of Courage and Hope" by Shulamit Ran

With: "Belshazzar's Feast" by Sir William Walton and Beethoven's Symphony No. 8

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $20-$53 (Thursday-Friday), $13-$28 (Saturday)

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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