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Young musicians pay homage to POW as part of Jewish music festival

Daniel Biederman and Nils Hobiger sit around a 'cello' made from a green oil drum.
Composer Daniel Biederman and cellist Nils Hobiger with the POW camp-inspired instrument.

ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty

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A prisoner-of-war camp isn't the ideal place to start an orchestra.

But that's exactly where Jewish musician Dr Solomon Bard put together his "peculiar band" in the early 1940s.

Born in Siberia, Bard worked as an Australian Army medic during WWII until he was captured by Japanese soldiers and sent to Hong Kong.

"Very quickly into their time at the POW camp [the prisoners] realised they'd be there for a long time," explains Daniel Biederman, a PhD student at Sydney's Conservatorium of Music and a friend of Bard, who passed away in 2014.

"He managed to get his hands on a violin and was able to practice at night, walk around the camp and play.

Bard's music assisted in one of the few escapes from the prison camp.

"He was a bit of an aural lookout," Biederman explains.

"He would play his violin to let the escapees know when soldiers were around, and he would stop playing when the coast was clear."

During his time in the camp, Bard managed to form an orchestra with other imprisoned musicians, who brought with them a range of instruments.

The conductor also rebelled against his captors by slipping forbidden music into the prisoners' concert performances.

"They were not allowed to play 'God Save the King' but Dr Bard would sneak in a few bars here and there during the performances," Biederman says.

Ingenuity in internment

As a contributing composer at Out of the Shadows, a new festival celebrating Jewish music and theatre, Biederman is bringing Bard's works out of the archives and onto centre stage.

Dr Solomon Bard looking at old documents through magnifying glass.
Throughout his life, Dr Bard had an insatiable curiosity for science and the arts.

Supplied: Sydney Jewish Museum

He's also eager to share the "remarkable" story of a man who, in the course of his 98 years, was an archaeologist, conductor, author, academic, doctor and proud volunteer at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Biederman's work The Last Renaissance Man: POW Years 1941-1945, will be performed Wednesday August 9 at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music's Verbrugghen Hall.

"It tells the story of Dr Bard's experience as a POW, both abstractly and emotionally, through the sounds of the instruments, and literally through the sounds of history and archival broadcasts," he explains.

Aside from the standard symphonic instruments the composition includes a surprisingly sonorous addition: the oil drum cello.

Commissioned by Biederman and crafted by Sydney-based luthier Antoine Lepsets, this unlikely instrument is a reconstruction of one made by two Canadian soldiers for Bard in the POW camp.

"That cello is essentially the centrepiece of my work; a personification of [Bard's] time in the POW camp," Biederman says.

Cellist Nils Hobiger plays an oil drum cello
Due to its size and cylindrical nature, the oil drum cello requires extra maneuvering.

Translating history into music

Out of the Shadows festival curator Joseph Toltz says that while the research for this project was intensive — a three-year undertaking funded by Britain's Arts and Humanities Research Council — the team unearthed a wealth of Jewish-Australian stories.

"Between 1933 to 1943 almost 10,000 Jewish refugees settled in Australia, and a lot of them were musicians," Dr Toltz says.

One such refugee was Peter Frank, a Jewish photographer who fled Germany before the war and managed to smuggle his recorder and harmonica with him.

His grandson Solomon Frank, now an undergraduate composer at the Conservatorium, will be exploring the essence and legacy of these items in his new work Peripherals, which premieres alongside Biederman's composition at Out of the Shadows.

Solomon Frank playing harmonica in front of wood background
Music runs in the family for undergraduate composer Solomon Frank.

ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty

"[The work] explores three instruments that have been passed down through my family and the different sonorities I can draw from those instruments, interplayed with live instruments," Frank says.

The third instrument is a violin belonging to Frank's great uncle, Samuel Helfgott, who became a violinist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra after moving to Australia.

"When we opened up the violin, it was the first time it had been opened since Samuel died in the 1970s," Frank says.

Frank says the instruments — like his grandfather's recorder, engraved with a spelling mistake — will always hold deep meaning

"There's some sort of essential essence in these objects," he muses.

"It's impossible to avoid that history of persecution."

Close up of old wooden recorder and rusty harmonica.
Peter Frank's wooden recorder was made in Leipzig, Germany.

ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty

For Dr Toltz, people's ability to create art during periods of extreme adversity is a testament to creativity and human strength.

"The important thing about this festival is that it explores the way in which artists create during all times — particularly during times of trauma and crisis and displacement — and how those voices can tell us about what it means to create art," he says.

And Dr Toltz believes that the artistic works of Holocaust survivors are especially poignant given the current refugee crisis.

"It behoves us to take account and listen to the artists of today — what they're saying about their situations, and how we should start [being] a more compassionate and just society, more welcoming of refugees."