Lenka Lichtenberg: Thieves of Dreams
For the greatest part of her life as a performing and recording artist, the composer and vocalist Lenka Lichtenberg has created a miraculously flawless discography spanning several albums. Thieves of Dreams [Zloději snů in the Czech language] certainly stands as the apogee of her distinguished career. The album is fully deserving of a nomination for the 2023 JUNO Awards in the Global Music Album of the Year category.
The album sets to music the poetry written by Miss Lichtenberg’s grandmother Anna Hana Friesová [1901-1987], written between 1942 and 1945 – and preserved in a secret diary – during the murderous incarceration of the Jews, by the Nazi under the occupation of erstwhile Czechoslovakia, during World War II. Like much Holocaust writing the poetry – especially the poetry of survivors – is especially poignant as it remembers the emotions of life lived through a glass darkly. Expressions of love are intense and excruciating and often tinged with elemental sadness and despair. Yet, somehow, hope always springs eternal.
The world spins inexorably, but in perilous times, heightened by the war in Ukraine and the prospect of nuclear catastrophe, giving life on earth a prescient reality. And yet there are those of us who live in parts of Western Europe and North America, and lulled – comparatively-speaking – into a false sense of safety. Here, however, like elsewhere, we live with racial discrimination of all kinds, and with anti-Semitism on the rise, the memory of the Holocaust will never fade away. As in the time of their incarceration during the murderous Nazi regime so also today artists in the Jewish Diaspora have thought deeply about hope – as they once did – when confronted by despair.
In the remarkable Holocaust poems of Anna Hana Friesová and in the contemporary music [composed by seven composers including herself] that Lenka Lichtenberg brings them to life again, we have a miraculous re-birth of the spirit of the poet in the edifying music of her granddaughter. Indeed, Thieves of Dreams unearths hidden and often priceless gems from Holocaust repertoire – in poetry and music. It is almost certain that no one could have made a memorial to a Holocaust survivor, in album of music, like Miss Lichtenberg has done here.
It is remarkable how the bittersweet poetry is reborn in Miss Lichtenberg’s luminous voice. More noteworthy is what the singer does with that voice; using her lustrous bell-like tones to bring the idiom of the poetry to life, to sing the narratives of ‘hell on earth’ with a near-spiritual power of a cantor. This makes her singing preternaturally agile and responsive. As if that weren’t enough, Miss Lichtenberg has managed to immerse herself in myriad of musical languages with breathtakingly beautiful and varied rhythmic vocabularies. And she shapes her songs in their various idioms, carving for herself a [musical] language of her own, sung in a voice that is at once universal and most emphatically her own, triumphant and beautifully alive amid a culture of death.
On this album we come face to face with some examples: One is Zázraky [Miracles], another is Utíkey, utíkej, člověče [Run, run, you little human] and yet another is Divoká, dravá voda byla [Wild, beastly water came]. On each of them we find music that is informed by intricate exploration by Miss Lichtenberg, together with genre-crossing by players at the top of their game. It is indeed rare to find music where the traditional Hindustani percussion instrument – the tabla – can nestle cheek-by-jowl with konnokol-like, phonetic vocal percussion, while all of this woven seamlessly by strings, woodwinds and brass into evocative music sung in the Czech language.
Best of all, like an operatic experience the listener can follow it all from the poems expertly translated and available in the accompanying booklet as layered and liquid interlocking patterns and gestures lead into one variation into another and songs come to life from one beautiful creation to the next. Miss Lichtenberg’s discreet decorations of modally inflected melodies and harmonies might make both cantorial as well as operatic divas blush. The reason for this is that Miss Lichtenberg successfully attempts something with rather more impetus and substance, and the overall unfolding feels organic in its near-symphonic precision.
Finally, as the album progresses, and especially on the fourteenth track – Mám vlastní trud [I have my own grief], featuring the voice of her mother, Jana Renée Friesová – Miss Lichtenberg’s singing amasses a texture of increasing expressiveness and dark-hued eloquence in which the poetry always remains central to the music’s subtly layered evolution while the instrumentalists conjure a veritable orchestra out of a relatively few instruments. This makes an evocative and atmospheric artifice of the Holocaust experience unique to – as Lenka Lichtenberg tells it – the Songs of Teresienstadt’s Secret Poetess, who is none other than her own legendary grandmother, Anna Hana Friesová.
Tracks – 1: Kam jsme to zašli? [What is this place?]; 2: Zas v slunci zlatém [In golden sunlight]; 3: Čekame kdesi na konce aleje [Waiting at the end of an alley]; 4: Zázraky [Miracles]; 5: Studený soumrak byl, můj milý [It was a cold duck, my love]; 6: Zvyk, to je příšera [That monster, custom]; 7: Utíkey, utíkej, člověče [Run, run, you little human]; 8: Divoká, dravá voda byla [Wild, beastly water came]; 9: Koleda, koleda za vašimi vrátky; 10: Jdou naše nohy, dvě a dvě [Our feet are marching, two and two]; 11: Chtěla jsem tě prokliít, hořká zemi [I wanted to curse you, bitter land]; 12: Můj ráji samoty [My paradise of solitude]; 13: Ženeme čas [We’re chasing time]; 14: Mám vlastní trud [I have my own grief]; 15: Neptej se, můj milý [Don’t ask me, my love]; 16: Maminka
Musicians – Lenka Lichtenberg: vocals, piano [1, 4, 6, 8, 14, 16] and synthesizer [1, 4, 12, 14]; Fern Lindzon: piano [3, 9]; Jessica Deutsch: violin, viola and cello [1, 3, 4, 5, 10, 16], and composer [5, 16]; Tyler Emond: contrabass [5, 16]; George Koller: contrabass [1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12]; Chris Gartner: electric bass ; Beverley Johnston: marimba ; Alan Hetherington: drums [2, 9, 11]; Lorie Wolf: drums [10, 13] and composer ; Anita Katakar: tabla ; Tomáš Reindl: tabla and percussion ; David Buchbinder: trumpet and flugelhorn [8, 11]; Christian Dawid: clarinet and bass clarinet ; Robert Fischmann: low whistle ; Murray Foster: harmony vocals ; Jana Renée Friesová: spoken word ; Milla Janatková: harmony vocals and acoustic guitar [2, 11, 15]; Auri Fell: voice percussion and harmony vocals ; Andrew McPherson: harmony vocals 
Released – 2022
Label – Independent
Runtime – 56:39
YouTube Video – Lenka Lichtenberg: What is this place?