LIVE EVENTS by Barry L. Cohen (v.6 #3, pp.12-13):
'Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival.' Symposium and Performance. Brecht Forum, NYC, Sept. 11 and 12.~~~ 'A Hanns Eisler Centennial Celebration!' including Piano Sonata #1; Sonata for Violin & Piano ("Reise" Sonata); Piano Sonata #3; The Roundheads and the Pointedheads; miscellaneous songs ~~ other music by Eisler associates. Various artists. West-Park Presbyterian Church, NYC, Sept. 26 .
It's good that this decidedly neglected and enigmatic composer was not forgotten during this year of nauseatingly ubiquitous Gershwin celebrations (with much of his music badly played). In fact, two local musicians attempted to organize a collaborative project - music therapist-percussionist John Pietaro and composer-pianist Leonard Lehrman - to pay tribute to Eisler. In the end the two parted company owing to the vast differences in concept as to how Eisler should be celebrated.
Mr. Pietaro's program did not fail to address Eisler's life and his musical talent, but it was overloaded with participation by a number of "left-wing activists" speaking and singing about revolutionary causes that often had absolutely nothing to do with Eisler's life and little to do with his music. On the Friday evening symposium, for example, eight speakers gave verbal presentations on such topics as "The Left's Disdain for Pop Culture" (Scott MX Turner), "What Makes Revolutionary Art Revolutionary" (Fred Ho) and "Music vs. Revolution" (Tuli Kupferberg). (These same three speakers also appeared in the musical portion of the festival the following Saturday evening, music which was only partly Eisler's.) Though we did not stay for the entire symposium nor the concert, what we heard was enough to leave us with an impression of a lot of personal airing out, long on diatribe and short on interactive discussion, while the songs were not memorable.
The symposium was, however, preceded by a quite worthwhile event, a screening of Solidarity Song, a film biography made by a crew of Canadian filmmakers for Rhombus in 1996. The fascinating 80-minute view of the composer is carefully and sensitively produced and focuses not so much on the life of a musical figure drawn to the political left (who adored Josef Stalin), but on a man with genuine idealism, wit, and a surplus of talent marred by fits of depression and general weltschmerz. (Historically, the film also reminded us of the disgrace of the McCarthy "Inquisition.") Several of Eisler's songs are cleverly staged and synched up to music on available records (including the sound of Eisler's own voice). As far as Mr. Pietaro's portion of the festival is concerned, we feel the showing of the film saved the day, since it did include a lot of Eisler's music, something missing elsewhere on his program.
On the other hand, we were not surprised to see that Mr. Lehrman's tribute was big, ambitious and much more professional looking and sounding. He had the blessing of excellent, well-rehearsed performers. Even if the three-hour plus program at this acoustically agreeable if poorly ventilated church wasn't entirely made up of the celebrant's own works, one felt Eisler's spirit was always much in evidence.
The German composer did not leave a particularly large body of chamber music, so Mr. Lehrman appeared to have no problem choosing two of his piano sonatas and one for violin and piano. (One can audition all of Eisler's chamber and works for solo piano on a single Accord CD [ACD 201712] with Christoph Keller, piano, and the Zurich Chamber Ensemble, or on the discs by Berlin Classics, Koch Schwann, Neuma, Gallo and ambitus; check your Schwann Opus catalog.) Lehrman took a more polemic view of Eisler's music through the vocal works which were largely created in collaboration with Brecht. We heard the first New York performance of the complete score for The Roundheads and the Pointedheads, a number of songs and also commentary by two living witnesses to the talents, personality and struggles of Hanns Eisler - Eric Bentley and Mordecai Bauman.
Their comments were interesting. Mr. Bentley talked about Eisler's obliging attitude toward Brecht and compared their relationship to that of Brecht and Kurt Weill (who refused to be dominated by the great librettist-playwright). Bentley also feels that Eisler was unsuccessful in his attempt to straddle the popular and classical music fields, as compared to, say Gershwin.
Mr. Bauman appeared to be more in awe of Eisler's memory, recalling his charming ways, his years with the Composers Collective in New York, his relationship to his great teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, and the great tragedy of being shunted from one country to another without refuge or redemption. It was good to see and hear these two reminisce, but their talks, running to about 40 minutes between them[,] might have been better presented as part of a printed program with, perhaps, a planned forum inviting them to speak at some other venue. Such an idea would have allowed for the showing of the film and the playing Eisler CDs. (Solidarity Song was shown at the Goethehaus on Sept. 23rd as part of Mr. Lehrman's tribute.)
The three sonatas were heard during the first part of this recital. Craig Johnson played the First Sonata, Eisler's respectful tribute to Schoenberg, with more authority that [sic: than] nuance. But he proved a congenial partner to Ashley Horne, violin, whose gracious, warm tone worked well in this "semi-serial" Violin & Piano Sonata. (It's a pleasure to hear 20th century music played without the seemingly standard overbrightness.) Mr. Lehrman then sat down to play the thornily bitonal Third Sonata and brought out both the power and the subtlety of this work with great success. (As Lehrman points out in his program notes, Eisler often set a minor key against the Phrygian mode in his piano music and also in several of his vocal works.)
The programmed vocal works were also performed with attention to the emotional content. In solos with piano accompaniment, Peter Ludwig caught the bitterness and prophecy in "Deutschland" (an original Lehrman song set to a Brecht poem) and was also quite convincing in Elie Siegmeister's "Strange Funeral in Braddock," a long (7+ minutes) ballad about an accidentally metal-embedded steelworker. Helene Williams sang the Brecht-Weill "Nanna's Lied," Marc Blitzstein's hilarious but rarely heard "Few Little English," and "Smile" [sic: "Spiele"], another Lehrman original set to a polemical poem by Peter Maiwald. As always, she expressed the musical and textual setiments clearly and directly.
With Lehrman at the piano and Gene Glickman conducting his Rainbow Voices, we heard two notable Brecht-Eisler proletarian pieces -"Song of the United Front" and "Solidarity Song," as well as "Die Moorsoldaten" (The Peatbog Soldiers), as edited by Eisler and arranged by Glickman from the original Langhoff-Goguel marching song.
The Roundheads and the Pointedheads was billed as an event "waiting to be rediscovered." Simultaneous to Lehrman's presentation was a first production given that very week at the Berliner Ensemble. "R&P" certainly has a fascinating istory, actually beginning as an adaptation of Measure for Measure until being transformed into a serio-comic fable for the time (or what Brecht considered something close to "comic opera or satire operetta"). The various characters suggest figures on the world stage; the 14 songs are laden with dialectical meaning, to wit, "Song of the Movement," "The If-It's-Not-In-Your-Hand-It's-Worth-Nothing Song," "Ballad of the Button," "Song of the Whitewasher[s]," etc. Though the music is very effective - again one has to get a handle on Eisler's bitonal harmonic structure before gaining a tasteful appreciation - it is Brecht's text that rules. But there are interesting reminders here and there of the great products of Brecht's collaboration with Kurt Weill, despite the differences in musical style.
Mr. Lehrman acquired some fine singers (several associated with the Bronx Opera Company) for this event. Ronald Edwards was a commanding Chief of Staff; Ben Spierman, a pompous landlord; Lucy Sorlucco (a last-minute replacement for Janis Sabatino Hills), an innocent would-be nun; Andrea Bradford, a bitchy cafe proprietress; the knockout Helene Williams, a brazenly disrespectful, in-your-face waitress; and Peter Ludwig, her father, an oppressed tenant farmer. All were under the direction of Mr. Lehrman.
Too bad the program ran so long; we might have enjoyed "R&P" even more so. We look forward to another encounter with this work under easier circumstances, perhaps on disc.