Connections: Czech, French, German, Russian->American in New York
(c) 2012 by Leonard J. Lehrman, with Helene Williams
New Music Connoisseur, Fall/Winter 2012, v. 20 #1, pp. 12-15
[Words in brackets did not appear in printed version.]
In the first half of 2012, N.Y. City hosted one stimulating program of 20th- & 21st-century music after another, ranging in influence from Czech to French to German, Russian, and American.
The Nash Ensemble, with the diligent, expressive baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, brought The Music of Terezin to the 92nd Street Y in several programs, ably curated and annotated by Michael Beckerman. We caught the one on Feb. 17, and were especially moved by Zigmund Schul's spooky "Die Nicht-Gewesenen" (What Never Were) and Ilse Weber's songs, particularly "Ich Wandre durch Theresienstadt"-the German name for Terezin, the Czech transit camp where so many played and sang their hearts out before their final trip to Auschwitz. Both those composers, along with almost all the others on the program, including Gideon Klein, Adolf Strauss, Carlo Sigmund Taube, Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, Karel Svenk and Otto Skutecky, all perished in 1944 or 1945.
Across town, the French influence was predominant in Symphony Space's Gertrude Stein Festival, beginning April 1 and concluding May 5 with a "Wall to Wall" that began with Debussy (whose sesquicentennial is being celebrated this year) and ended with Ravel, in between touching on Stravinsky, Poulenc, Milhaud, Thomson, and Ned Rorem, who was on hand to make his usual pronouncement that "Everything is either French or German." A highlight was baritone Robert Osborne's "Cabaret for Gertrude," accompanied by pianist Richard Gordon, in Gershwin, Cole Porter, Mischa Spoliansky, and several rarities, including the not-yet-published Franz Waxman "La crise est finie" (1934) about greeting the depression by simply taking off all your clothes. (Can't wait 'til it's published!)
It recalled to us "Sweet Nudity" in Porter's Nymph Errant-the next project of The Prospect Theater, which brought us Iron Curtain last fall and a staging of Adam Guettel's song cycle, Myths and Hymns, which we caught Feb. 24, just before it closed two days later. The seven singer/actor/dancers were directed with a "new narrative" by Elizabeth Lucas, which sought to concretize the struggles of mythological figures like Hero, Leander, Sisyphus, Saturn and Pegasus in modern images of fundamentalist bigotry and victimization. The musical settings and performers certainly deserved the audience's warm applause, especially Linda Balgord in "Awaiting You" and Anika Larsen in "How Can I Lose You?" [It was Prospect Theater's "Propaganda Cabaret" of six years ago that first introduced us to the work of actor/writer Jamie Jackson and composer SoHee Youn, and their brilliant "Guns Don't Kill People." On May 10 we attended the first full reading of their new work in progress at the Playroom Theatre, hosted by Eric Krebs, who had showcased them in his "Laughing Liberally" (and sponsored us in one of our first Blitzstein Cabaret performances at Caffé Bonnelle back in 1989). The work is still very much in flux, even the title, but the brilliance of one member of the ensemble, the stunning singing actress Jane Pfitsch in the role of a would-be Russian spy, should not go unmentioned.]
Back to the French influence: John Heiss, the featured composer in New England Conservatory's "Mosaic" at Third Street Music School Settlement Jan. 24, told how Darius Milhaud had said to him: "Stop thinking, just put it down." A highly respected authority on writing for his own instrument, the flute, Heiss did not disappoint in the concert's concluding work, a 1971 quartet for flute, clarinet, cello and piano [which, he explained, had been brilliantly coordinated from the piano at its premiere by Harvard's Luise Vosgerchian]. Tania Simonic conducted it here. Another Heiss piece, Episode I (1981) for violin and electronics, was charismatically performed by Lynn Bechtold, who also contributed her own violin-cello Duo Die (2006) which she performed with Jennifer DeVore. All the composers and performers had some connection with NEC and were present, except David Amram, whose solo horn piece opened the concert. Erik Lundborg's Colors (1996) for 4-hand piano was the least recent, all the others pieces - by Daniel Felsenfeld, Dan Cooper, Andrew Rathbun, Geoffrey Kidde, Sara Hotzshue, and Eleanor Cory - had been written, or revised, within the last seven years. Cory's settings of Dickinson, Wilbur, and her own text were most effective, sung by soprano Eleanor Taylor, accompanied by Christopher Oldfather.
[The French influence was also predominant in one production and at least one of five "mufti" presentations (on book, with one week's rehearsal, and no sets or elaborate costumes) we attended at the York Theatre. Mildred Kayden's Ionescopade is a brilliant musical vaudeville, conceived by Robert Allan Ackerman, and based on words by Eugène Ionesco stitched together from his journals, incomplete plays, one-act plays, scenes from full length plays, and "various dead-end conversations." Various Bobby Watson sketches, derived from passages in Ionesco's most famous play, The Bald Soprano, hold the second act together beautifully. Many of the numbers can be performed in English or French, most notably, "Everyone is Like Me/Je suis perverse," sung by Leo Ash Evens. (The composer generously gave us a copy of and we intend to perform it in Québec!). The cast, which had two and a half weeks' rehearsal, was uniformly good, with Samuel Cohen as the Little Man and Nancy Anderson, Paul Binotto, David Edwards, Susan J. Jacks, Tina Stafford, and Mr. Evens each in more roles than the program even had room to list. Bill Castellino directed and choreographed; James Morgan designed the sets; Christopher McGovern conducted from the piano. A worthy endeavor, and an appetite-whetter for Kayden's even more ambitious and promising musical, Vanity Fair, which we hope she (a still very spry 90 years old) - and we - will live to see staged someday- perhaps by the York?
French culture has also, obviously, influenced lyricist Tom Jones, whose most famous work, The Fantasticks,. with music by Harvey Schmidt, was inspired by Edmond Rostand's Les Romanesques. We were privileged to be invited to attend the York's mufti festival featuring several of his works:
Colette Collage, the most French of all Jones's & Schmidt's works, on April 29, based on 39 melodies Schmidt penned while living in Colette's farmhouse in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in Burgundy. Christine Andreas was outstanding as the title character, even better, in Jones's estimation, than Zoe Caldwell and Mildred Dunnock had been in the role. The most memorable tune in the show, "The Room Is Filled with You," has had its royalties assigned to groups devoted to AIDS awareness and prevention. The most delightful song, though, was a cut number - incorporated into the pastiche of Jones numbers, The Show Goes On, which we attended Mar. 17: "Decorate the Human Face," sung by veteran Susan Watson, about a boutique Colette set up early in her career, before writing over 50 novels and dozens of short stories. The saddest and most tantalizing numbers that afternoon, however, were from the aborted Schmidt-Jones musical Grover's Corners, based on Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and withdrawn by demand of the playwright's heirs. Jones explained that they seemed to think making a musical of this masterpiece of American theatre would somehow demean it. Ned Rorem made a beautiful opera of it. Someone really should persuade the heirs that a musical, such as the one we heard excerpts from, would not detract but rather enhance the public's appreciation of this great classic.
French was also the musical influence - specifically, the works of Jacques Offenbach, in Jones's adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Anatol plays in his musical, The Game of Love, with arrangements and additional music by the very gifted Nancy Ford, who also conducted from the piano, May 12. Jones credited the idea of Frenchifying a Viennese play to film director Max Ophuls, who transformed Schnitzler's Reigen into La Ronde. Some of the waltzes, though, might possibly benefit from a slightly speeded-up second beat, rendering them more Viennese and Straus[s]ian - (perhaps not Johann or Richard, but perhaps à la Oscar Straus, the composer of the music to Ophuls' film!). Ms. Ford responded very positively to that suggestion, saying it could in fact bring more musical variety to a show which is really a truly beautiful operetta, performable in opera houses as well as theaters, along the lines of so many Wright & Forrest musicals (after Borodin, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Villa-Lobos) or E.Y. Harburg's Happiest Girl in the World - also after Offenbach.
The most delightful recent work by Jones is his adaptation of the cult film, Harold and Maude, with music by Joe Thalken. We saw Estelle Parsons in it at the Papermill Playhouse seven years ago, loved it then, and loved its newest version (Apr. 15) even more, which embellished the role of Angel, originally created in the movie by Ellen Geer, and sung to the hilt here by Donna Lynn Champlin. Some numbers were cut, others added. When a recording is made, we urge the creators to include everything, the way John Mauceri and the Scottish opera included everything cut from Blitzstein's Regina, so future producers can make choices, as they always did, for example, in the grand operas of Halévy and Meyerbeer.
French history and German literature intersect in Bertolt Brecht's last completed full-length play, about the 1871 Paris Commune, with music by Hanns Eisler, The Days of the Commune. I was translator and director of its U.S. premiere at Harvard and Yale, 41 years ago, and was thrilled to learn that a troupe was performing - and filming - it in New York for the first time, one scene each weekend over a period of months, this spring, in Zuccotti Park, in association with Occupy Wall Street. On April 28, I paid them a visit. [See attached photo.] Unfortunately, they were already committed to a very British translation (used by the Royal Shakespeare Company), based not on Brecht's published work, but on what his successors at the Berliner Ensemble made of it after his death, and not incorporating any of the additional Brecht-Eisler songs that had enlivened the 1971 U.S. premiere. More promising was a program, the very next evening, at the Brecht Forum, devoted entirely to Hanns Eisler: 13 songs (8 of them on Brecht texts) well sung by Boston soprano Karyn Levitt in Eric Bentley's translations, with Eric Ostling at the piano and synthesizer; they were followed by newly-translated dialogues between Eisler and Hans Bunge, mostly about Brecht, but also about Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, Charlei Chaplin, and others, read by British actor Paul Clements and Bunge's daughter, Sabine Berendse, who edited and translated the dialogues, scheduled for publication by Arc in the UK later this month. Present in the audience were Jim Miller, of the Hanns Eisler Society in Cleveland, and NPR reporter Margot Adler, who had known Eisler and his brother Gerhard as a child. The discussion and stories afterwards were, to say the least, fascinating.
German culture could also be said to have been central in Downtown Music Productions' "Woman's Musical Journey," March 18 at St. Marks-in-the-Bowery, as it centered around soprano Yoland F. Johnson's heartfelt, moving performance of Robert Schumann's "Frauenliebe und Leben," sensitively accompanied by Mimi Stern-Wolfe, as she did most of the program. Nothing could top that. But Paula Kimper's song cycle, "Restless Yearnings Towards My Self," commissioned by DMP and revised to be sung by baritone Jose Arturo Chacon, who sang and danced exquisitely with Felicia Norton, dazzlingly choreographed by Sasha Spielvogel, came close. Johnson opened the program with Lucy Coolidge's pleasantly irregular-metered Two Shakespeare Songs from Twelfth Night, joined by Stern-Wolfe and flutist Andrew Bolotowsky, followed by Poulenc's luscious Trio in which the two instrumentalists were joined by oboist Jeffrey Hale. Contralto Linda Thompson Williams sang David Hollister's setting of Ilse Gilbert's "Homeless Children" with conviction, accompanied by Stern-Wolfe and cellist Jennifer DeVore. Then those two instrumentalists were joined by violinist Earl Maneein in three very amusing excerpts from Debra Kaye's Ugly Duckling incidental music. Soprano Kate Hurney, accompanied by Stern-Wolfe and DeVore, concluded the first half with parlor songs by Liza Lehmann, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Amy Beach.]
A work by Debra Kaye, "Shades of Light," on four poems by Emily Dickinson, opened the New York Composers Circle concert in memory of Dinu Ghezzo, [in the same church,] at St. Marks-in-the-Bowery, Feb. 5. Soprano Patricia Sonego was the graceful singer, accompanied by Hiromi Abe. It was followed by the world premiere of Peri Mauer's short but colorful, spirited "Pixeliance" for flute, harp and marimba, expertly performed by Mary Barto, Ashley Jackson and Mike Truesdell. Elliott Carter's setting of Baudelaire's "La Musique," featuring soprano Tiffany Du Mouchelle, a cappella, was also short but expressive. Alto saxophonist Kat Maresco and pianist Seann Branchfield concluded the first half with Matt Weber's attractive "Swing Sonata: Waltz Rondo." Clarinetist Esther Lamneck stole the show with the premiere of Dinu Ghezzo's plaintive but also exciting, even ravishing, splendid last composition "Wild Flower," written for her. Robert S. Cohen's "Ant's World," for marimba four hands, received a spirited performance by Simon Boyar and Crystal Chu, the four movements ranging from perpetuum mobile, to a tour de force Prokofievish march, to creepy and low ("Dat Roach is a Heavy Load") and finally noble and majestic ("It's Good to Serve the Queen"). Du Mouchelle returned, with pianist Marcia Eckert, for a vigorous performance of Nailah Nombeko's Four Songs to Poems of William Blake. The program concluded with Nataliya Medvedovskaya's "The First Snow," performed by oboist Gregory Weissman, bassoonist Leonard Hindell, violinist Stanichka Dimitrova, and the composer at the piano. The St. Petersburg native, in New York since 2003, explained: "There was not any snow in New York for a long time. I missed it." The piece was charming and picturesque, with disparate ideas that developed interestingly, though not into each other - sort of Gershwin meets Stravinsky, with a Tchaikovskyan esthetic. Medvedovskaya's father, Yefim Medvedovskiy, whom I met at this concert, and later worked with as translator, is an accomplished writer of very beautiful and thought-provoking poetry in Russian, which she should really consider setting to music.
Another Russian pianist/composer I met at this concert, Nina Siniakova, was invited to compose and premiere a piano work of hers, which she did, at a Queens College "Concert of (Mostly) Premieres" by Hubert Howe "and Friends" on May 1. Detail-oriented and yet expansive, her "Nocturne" preceded Howe's own electronic "19-tone Clusters," which was the highlight of the evening, breathtakingly inhabited and danced by Linda Past. Other friends included Raoul Pleskow, represented by his Music for Four Instruments in its world premiere, and John Melby, whose well-thought-out "For Milton [Babbitt]," on a text drawn from Shelley's "Adonais," for soprano and computer, was eloquently premiered by Patricia Sonego. Howe himself opened each half of the program, with his electronic "Emergence (Timbre Study No. 8)" and "Chimera" for solo cello Andrew Borkowski), respectively. He also closed it with a clarinet trio. Both ensemble pieces - his and the Pleskow - were conducted by Ben Arendsen. [As in the Heiss piece, there was no Luise Vosgerchian, alas, to hold the ensemble together from the piano. But] the evening was ultimately quite satisfying, and deserving of a larger audience.
Another gifted young Russian composer/pianist, Natasha Jitomirskaia Hirschhorn, was to have been represented by two songs based on the Song of Songs, on a faculty concert, April 24 at Jewish Theological Seminary, but had to cancel due to illness. We do hope we'll get to hear her sing them with the Cassatt Quartet another time. Composer/baritone Cantor Gerald Cohen filled in with a work of his own for baritone and strings. The largely cheerful program, also featuring the H.L. Miller Cantorial School Choir and an instrumental group called "Lunatics at Large," included works by Lawrence Avery, Charles Davidson, Boaz Tarsi, Leonard Bernstein, and a medley arranged by conductor David Tilman. But the major work was a three-movement quartet by Cohen entitled "Playing for Our Lives," dedicated to and depicting those who suffered at Terezin. The Cassatts passionately outdid themselves, as they did in John Duffy's delightfully eclectic "We Want Mark Twain," narrated by Isaiah Sheffer and Signe Mortensen at Symphony Space Jan. 14, in a program called "Sounds American." A trio called Fieldwork, the Martin Bejerano Trio, and the Imani Winds preceded them in music by Steve Lehman, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Simon Shaheen (his Amramesque "Zafir") and Bejerano.
Also on a Jewish theme, the highlight of Leo Kraft's 90th birthday celebration at the Center for Jewish History, March 11, was baritone Thomas Meglioranza's singing of Kraft's "Seven Hebrew Songs" to poems by medieval poets, accompanied by hornist David Jolley and pianist Konstantza Chernov. Kraft's copious instrumental works were also well represented, but it was a rare treat to listen to his pensive vocal settings, not heard since the lovely "My Autumn Walk" he wrote for the William Cullen Bryant Bicentennial in 1994. [Put May 5, 2013 on your calendar, when he'll be featured on a concert Music by Great Neck Composers, at Great Neck Library.]
John Duffy, the former head of Meet The Composer for many years, is of course an American musical treasure. So is 90-year-old composer/arranger/conductor Robert DeCormier, former director of the New York Choral Society, who came to town for John Daly Goodwin's final concert as the group's musical director, April 20 at Carnegie Hall. [See photograph attached; DeCormier is holding a Martha Schlamme LP signed by her - and him - for which he wrote and conducted the arrangements.] The program opened with Stephen Paulus's pompous "Whitman's New York," followed by Morten Lauridsen's devout "Lux Aeterna" (in Latin). After intermission came Morton Gould's wonderfully irreverent "Quotations," settings of delicious selections from Browning, Byron, Herrick, Shelley and Gould himself; followed by DeCormier's touching and beautifully orchestrated "Legacy," written in memory of his son Christopher who died of testicular cancer, aged 23, in 1977; and ending with Charles Ives's majestic setting, with organ and chimes, of Psalm 90. All the performances were exemplary, with just one quibble: Was it really necessary to break up the continuity of the Gould by giving pitches between movements?
Other impressive choral performances included the Gregg Smith Singers at St. Peter's Citicorp Jan. 28; "Transient Glory," Francisco J. Nunez's Young People's Chorus of New York City Feb. 17 at the 92nd Street Y; and the men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir at Carnegie Hall May 9.
In the first, the Gershwins's "By Strauss," as arranged and conducted by Gregg Smith, with his wife Rosalind Rees as soloist, was the delightful finale of a beautifully put-together and generously program-noted concert. The first half featured Smith's own Mary Trilogy (1988) and Magnificat (1961), with lighter fare "From the Great American Songbook" on the second half, including some "additional lyrics" by Kim Rich to Johnny Mercer's and Harold Arlen's "Blues in the Night," and gems by Berlin, Kern, Duke, Sondheim and the aforementioned Gershwin.
The second was #2 of two concerts (the first being the night before at Poisson Rouge), this one featuring music by Joan Tower, Bright Sheng and David Del Tredici. In each case the composer was interviewed and had a work played by the Jack Quartet, followed by a world premiere commissioned by and written for the chorus. Nunez conducted only the short final "Credo Fugue" by Del Tredici ("part of a larger piece not yet commissioned, David told me), assigning all the other works to his able assistants, Tian Hui Ng and Janet Galván (the Tower), Ana Alvarez and Grant Gershon (the Sheng), and Karen Cooksey (the Del Tredici). The chorus responded amazingly well to the demanding works, especially Sheng's "Boatmen's Song," in Chinese, which they memorized. Tower's works were her first for voice, while Del Tredici polytonally took great fun in texts by Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns, emphasizing the "good and gay."
The third comprised the long, last section of the very long Piano Concerto by Ferruccio Busoni, perhaps the longest piano concerto ever written, and probably the only one with male chorus. It was the Carnegie Hall debut for New Jersey Symphony conductor Jacques Lacombe, and he chose to highlight the Busoni by preceding it with works by two of that composer's most illustrious pupils, Kurt Weill and Edgard Varèse, representing the beginning and end of each ot their careers, respectively. Weill's Symphony #1 was receiving its first performance at Carnegie, and one could hear why. Taken at a tempo a little too fast for the horns, it is a very serious piece by a very talented student, far less impressive than the composer's later Violin Concerto, Second Symphony, and of course theatre music. Varèse's short "Nocturnal" was written at the end of that composer's career, and left most of the audience a bit bewildered, as his music still often does. It too employed the Westminster chorus men, with soprano Hila Plitmann in a gorgeous green gown and a light but sure, true voice. The Busoni text, invoking Allah, was derived from Adam Oehlenschläger's Aladdin. Varèse's text added nonsense syllables to words and phrases from Anaïs Nin's House of Incest. Laurie Shulman contributed the extensive program notes to this worthy effort.
In their 25 years together, Leonard J. Lehrman and Helene Williams [("the Jewish Bolcom & Morris"-Jewish Week, Mar. 30, 2012)] have performed over 500 concerts and reviewed hundreds more. This summer they were artists in residence at the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop.
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