Judith Stillman, an altruistic musician


Local composer’s song cycle a highlight at Holocaust Remembrance Day

Dr. Judith Lynn StillmanDr. Judith Lynn Stillman, a renowned concert pianist, is someone who enhances the lives of those around her and believes in good causes. A Julliard-trained musician and professor of music at Rhode Island College, Stillman has helped thousands of students find their niche within the world of music. Many have become award-winning composers, directors and conductors. Even more are awaiting their opportunity to join them. Stillman wants to make sure that these children won’t be denied the chance.

Because of school budget cuts to stringed music programs, some children’s musical futures were jeopardized. To counteract this decline in support, Michael Reynolds, the cellist with whom Stillman recorded “Viennese Gems” and performed the CD on December 11 at Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts at Rhode Island College, created the Classics for Kids Foundation. Its goal is to inspire children and enhance their academic performance through development of discipline, communication and cultural awareness. All of the net proceeds from the CD, which features the Beethoven Trio, Opus 38, and the Zemlinsky Trio, Opus 3, will benefit schoolchildren around the country.

The Rhode Island students will be the first to receive free stringed instruments. Thousands of children ranging in age from five to 18 have already participated in CFKF. Stillman is proud to be a part of the endeavor since she, herself, directly benefited from the generosity of others when she received a scholarship to Julliard’s pre-college program. She is an example of someone who flourished after being exposed to music at an early age. Together with her collaborators on “Viennese Dreams” – Reynolds and Richard Stoltzman, the esteemed clarinetist – Stillman is ensuring that another generation of musicians can follow in their footsteps.

Donating the CD proceeds is only one instance of Stillman’s altruism. In her spare time, she visits nursing home residents with her toy poodle, a trained therapy dog. In 2012, she composed a song cycle called “Phoenix from the Ashes” that she set to the poems and stories of the children of Terezin, a Czech fortress that the Nazis transformed into a transit camp. During the Holocaust, 144,000 Jews were sent there; 88,000 were transported to death camps; most of the rest perished at Terezin.

Sidney Taussig was one of the few survivors. He wasn’t sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz because he was needed to work in his father’s blacksmith shop. Besides surviving, he accomplished another great feat – Taussig rescued VEDEM (the title means “we lead”), the secret literary magazine created by 100 boys between 1942 and 1944. These 14- and 15-year-olds shared their poems, essays and drawings in this magazine, whose logo displayed a rocket ship flying past a book toward a star and whose issues were manually copied and read around the camp’s barracks on Friday nights.

Taussig was in the audience as the guest of honor when Stillman, along with Lori Phillips, soprano at the New York Metropolitan Opera, premiered the seven-song cycle, which was inspired by VEDEM and by “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” The latter is a collection of art and poetry written by Terezin’s young inhabitants and named after Pavel Friedmann’s poem, whose author died in Auschwitz. The contents of the book are permeated by the children’s longing for the past. A boy named Teddy writes, “Here in Terezin, life is hell. / And when I go home again, I can’t yet tell.” Franta Bass echoes him, “I look toward my home, / the city where I was born. / City, my city, / I will gladly return to you.”

On April 27, 2014, “Phoenix From the Ashes: A Song Cycle” will be the highlight of the Holocaust Remembrance Day events at the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Washington, D.C. The project was born while Stillman was on tour in Canada. At a dinner party, she spotted the book (the boys’ work was published in the mid 1990s in “We are Children Just the Same”) and couldn’t get it out of her mind. Driving home, she couldn’t wait to start composing music to the art that stirred her. Stillman ended up finding a music store in Vermont and buying staff paper to capture the notes that she felt. Now music lovers will be able to experience VEDEM in a whole new way that engages all the senses.