Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Three Vigorous Music Recitals
AUFBAU 63:6 Mar. 14, 1997 p13
[original title: Recital Novelties at Walter Reade, Queens, and DOROT] 1300 words
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Mar. 9, 1997

Franz Kafka and Erwin Schulhoff
[original subhead: Kafka/Schulhoff at Walter Reade]

[If you're going to highlight the works of a writer or writers and a composer or composers, one would think that musical settings of or inspired by the writer(s)'s texts would be appropriate material for a program. That's what] Sarah Rothenberg, artistic director of the Da Camera Ensemble of Houston, [did on its first program last November with Arthur Lourie's and Dmitri Shostakovich's settings of and inspired by Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Mayakovsky. She] has for the last two seasons presented the series Music and the Literary Imagination at the Walter Reade Theater. In her latest program, entitled "Kafka's Vision," Rothenberg chose to feature readings by veteran actress Uta Hagen of short selections in English translation from four texts by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), interspersed with four sets of pieces by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). What did they have in common? Two German-speaking Jews of Prague who perished before their time, appreciation for whose works came only much later. For Schulhoff, that appreciation is still very much in development, though his "Hot Sonata" for Saxophone & Piano is fast becoming a classic.

The program opened promisingly with a 1928 recording of Schulhoff himself playing his own Tempo di Fox from Rag-Music, with a dry humor (not unlike that of his contemporary Kurt Weill). Said humor seemed lacking when Ms. Rothenberg closed the first half at the piano with Schulhoff's 1926 Cinq Etudes de Jazz, beginning with an angry Charleston, a marchlike rendition of a Blues (dedicated to Paul Whiteman), leading into a Chanson, Tango, and a tour-de-force "Toccata sur le Shimmy, 'Kitten on the Keys.'" Her interpretations were certainly legitimate, but this is repertoire that could benefit from a lighter touch, like Schulhoff's own, or perhaps that of a pianist like Andre Watts or any of a number of crossover artists.

Humor returned to the stage only at the beginning of the final work on the concert, Schulhoff's 1924 Sextet for Strings, performed by the Schoenberg Quartet of Amsterdam with violist Martha Strongin and cellist Norman Fischer: In the opening cello solo, Fischer, in an excess of enthusiasm, immediately broke a string, stopped, left the stage for a few minutes, and returned, remarking: "I thought it was going well!"

Schulhoff's 1923 Five Pieces for String Quartet and 1924 String Quartet #1, both played by the Schoenberg Quartet, comprised the rest of the program. Each displayed solid workmanship in composition and performance, as well as the composer's catholicity of nationalist taste, ranging from Spanish to French to Italian to Czech to Slovak to Viennese to Euro jazz, sometimes remind-ing one of Bela Bartok, sometimes Arnold Schoenberg, sometimes Darius Milhaud (to whom the Five Pieces were dedicated), the quintuple-time Burlesca in the Sextet being particularly delightful.

But what did this music have to do with Kafka? Not much. And consider that no fewer than 32 composers en 35 works
inspired by his texts, including 6 operas by such luminaries as Hans Werner Henze, Aribert Reimann, Gottfried von Einem, Gunther Schuller and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, not to mention other works by Ernst Krenek, Josef Tal, Faye-Ellen Silverman, and classics such as Lukas Foss's Time Cycle. Why not perform or at least cite them in the otherwise extensive program notes?

[The group's next concert, April 7, is entitled "The Musical World of Thomas Mann," but does not include works by any of the seven composers who have set his texts to music (among them, Benjamin Britten, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and David Diamond). One hopes that the relationship between Mann and those composers whose works are to be performed (Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wolff, "Pfitzer" [Pfitzner?], Wagner, Mahler, and Schoenberg) will be better established than that between Kafka and Schulhoff.]

Janet Packer and Orin Grossman
[original subhead: Packer/Grossman at Queens]

Audiences in Boston and Maine next month can still catch the tail end of a ten-city tour (through California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most recently at Queens College) by violinist Janet Packer (the champion of works by Gardner Read, Vittorio Rieti, and younger composers) and pianist Orin Grossman in a program of Bach, Ravel, and two pieces composed especially for their recital: five attractive preludes by Mary Mageau (b.1934) subtitled "Calls from the Heartland" and a new suite by David Alpher (b. 1947) based on themes from Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier. The latter is especially entertaining, complete with a challenging cadenza flashily including left-hand pizzicati.

Unbridled lack of inhibition served the Perpetuum mobile finale of the Ravel Sonata well; one could have enjoyed a little more uninhibited portamento in some of the Strauss waltz tunes. Alpher's use of Baron Ochs's theme is slightly off in its rhythmic figuration (the upbeat should be a quarter note or two sixteenths, not two eighths), and some of the phrasing seemed less than completely cognizant of the original text setting. But the piece has promise along the lines of the Sarasate or Schedrin Carmen Suites, and has obviously been enhanced violinistically by close collaboration with Ms. Packer. A lovely encore arrangement of a movement from Frederick Delius's Florida Suite brought the vigorous and invigorating recital to a lyrical close.

A Tribute to Louise Talma
[original subhead: Gottlieb's Talma Tribute]

Another vigorous New York City recital took the form of a benefit concert in homage to the late Louise Talma, one of Nadia Boulanger's most faithful students at the Fontainebleau American Conservatoire. The performer was her prize student, who also studied for years with Boulanger: the pianist and composer Jay Gottlieb, now resident in Paris, on a rare visit to New York. Co-sponsors were Gottlieb's Hunter College Class of 1970 and the Fontainebleau Alumni Association.

Last spring, as Talma was nearing her 90th birthday (she died over the summer, just two and a half months short of it), the Association presented her with an award at a concert which was to include one of her works. The performance was cancelled, however, on account of performers' illness. This time, three pieces of hers were heard, but on an instrument which hostess Barbara Bauer apologetically described as "the most decrepit piano in the City of New York" - a Wissner baby grand, which the sponsors had been quite willing to replace with a rented grand, only the building (DOROT, on West 85th Street) would not let them, citing insurance reasons.

Nevertheless, both Talma and Boulanger had obviously taught Gottlieb well the virtue of struggling, and struggle he did, with nearly feltless hammers in the upper register, a tubby bass, and a high E-flat that quickly went out of tune. The ambitious program included 28 works by 22 composers, mostly French and American, chosen carefully to relate to influences Talma's own music expressed: Bach, Chopin, Scriabin; Faure, Debussy, Ravel, Satie; skipping over "Les Six" to Bartk, Gershwin and especially Ives, the finale of whose Concord Sonata closed the first half. Connections were ably drawn among preludes of Ruth Crawford-Seeger and William Duckworth; etudes of Betsy Jolas, Colin Matthews and Gyorgy Ligeti; and 3 works by Maurice Ohana, whose sister attended. A suite of homages opened with George Crumb's "Love-Death Music," which intermittently quotes from Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu; there followed Berio's "Luftklavier," Michael Finnissy's tribute to Yvar Mikhashoff, and the familiar Third Piano Blues of Copland - Boulanger's first American student.

Talma's own pieces, from 1954 and 1949, featured bursts of rage between modal and diatonic passages in a quasi-Prokofiev manner a la francaise, and a long melody line leading finally to bitterly crashing chords.
[Gottlieb's own music, which I know from having shared a 1969 composition prize with him at Fontainebleau and having interviewed him on Harvard Radio in 1970, is also French-inflected, and would seem to have been appropriate to have been represented on the program as well. Perhaps another time, and, hopefully, on a better piano!]

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