Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

New York: Musical Visions of Germans & Jews
[original title: Musical Visions of Germans & Jews in New York]
AUFBAU 63:24 Nov. 21, 1997 p13
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Nov. 15, 1997
1580 words

It's been quite a November for German and Jewish culture in New York. First Ophra Yerushalmi presented a Heinrich Heine-inspired recital at Columbia.

Then Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion united to present a 41/2-day conference, including numerous concerts and workshops on the (mostly) sacred music of German-speaking Jews. And finally, back at Columbia, Sonic Boom presented a series of 8 concerts, featuring works of Bresnick, Kernis, Babbitt, Druckman, Davidovsky, Schoenberg, Lang, Lansky, and two dozen other composers.
"Nudity" at (the) Sonic Boom

A highlight of the latter, the Da Capo Chamber Players' program of Theater Chamber Music, promised - or warned - "This program contains nudity," which proved to be a slight exaggeration, at least by European standards. True, dancer/choreographer Rebecca Stenn did dance the final minutes of the 1969 Vesalii Icones by Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934) bare-chested. And, on her encouragment, cello soloist Andr Emelianoff performed barefoot.

So did flautist Patricia Spencer, made up to look somewhat cat-like in "Kathinka's Chant as Lucifer's Requiem," a 1983 work by Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928). Singing while playing, with multiphonics and tone bending, she traversed the stage from station to station, as excerpts from each of the 24 sections of the work were mounted on diamond-shaped surfaces supported on tetrahedrons of different heights arranged in two circles with a red hexagon in a black square standing in the middle. The accompanying tape employed, among other things, children's laughter, such as the composer had used so effectively in his now classic Gesang der \ Juenglinge back in the 1950s. In the section entitled "Release of the Senses," spotlights were shed on drawings of an eye, a hand, a nose, a mouth, a brain, and an ear. The performance, clearly strenuous, was yet oddly affectless and ultimately relatively cold and unemotional.

A certain distancing also characterized Lisa Moore's take-charge solo performance of the 1992 De Profundis by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938), with a text drawn from Oscar Wilde's letter to Alfred Douglas from Reading gaol. It is well-characterized, in its own phraseology, as "a symphony of sorrow." But the description "speaking pianist" understates what the performer is called upon to do: namely, humming, whistling, tapping, slapping, snapping, honking a bicycle horn, intoning, and groaning quasi-orgasmically. Moore's cool approach successfully avoided the potential for self-indulgence such gesturing could easily become. The Davies, which concluded the program, was conducted by David Gilbert, who also played flute, while Patricia Spencer quadrupled on flute, bass flute, piccolo, and upright piano. All the performers did a masterful job.

Heine at the Piano

I wish the same could have been said regarding the Heine recital in the same space a week earlier. Paul Rowe's mostly high and light baritone was modest but effective in the settings by Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, and both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. Novelty treats were Stefan Wolpe's setting of "Die schlesischen Weber" with traditional cadences in unexpected tonalities, and Richard Wagner's setting in French(!) of the famous "Die beiden Grenadiere," complete with Marseillaise quotation (but in the accompaniment, not in the voice) as in the better known Schumann setting.

The disappointment came in the piano apotheoses of the solo pieces by Liszt, embellished from Mendelssohn and Schubert - the latter being the famous "Erlkoenig" which is of course Goethe and not Heine, and seemed questionable in its inclusion, at least until such time as the performer has it a bit more under control, technically.

The Voice of Ashkenaz:
Jewish Lieder at Goethe House

A critical cavil must also be raised at the inclusion of three songs by Hugo Wolf in the Jewish lieder recital at Goethe House which opened the "Voice of Ashkenaz" conference, simultaneously (in an embarrassment of riches) with the Brooklyn Philharmonic's Concert of Remembrance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Wolf was, after all, an anti-Semite; and no reasons seemed too logical for having his "Er ist's" conclude the first half except that the London soprano Vivienne Bellos seemed to have it in her repertoire, and the long postlude gave the hard-working accompanist Ruth Rose a chance to share the limelight.

A highlight of the program was the opening cycle of four songs by Louis Lewandowski [see picture] (1821-1894), his opus 1, clearly influenced by Schubert and Mendelssohn, sung with winning tone by baritone Cantor Perry Fine in their American premiere(!). Fine also lovingly performed two of Paul Dessau's songs in Hebrew and three in German by Max Kowalski (1882-1956), whose nephew, an English professor at Queens College, was present. Acting JTS Dean Boaz Tarsi brought a dark, forbidding tone to the works of the Jewishly-inspired Max Bruch and the virtually forgotten Rudolf Walther Hirschberg (1889-1960) and Pavel Haas (1899-1944).

Soprano Heather Kelley brought operatic breadth to the 16-year-old Kurt Weill's cycle in German after Yehuda Halevi. And Vivienne Bellos offered two Hebrew settings of the same poet by Heinrich Schalit (1886-1976) - who originally fled Vienna for Rome, and was commissioned to write a service by none other than Benito Mussolini, to whom it was (at first) dedicated.

Another highlight of the program was four songs by Hugo Adler (1894-1955), including the lullaby written in honor of the birth in 1928 of his son Sam, now a leading composer in his own right, and a dynamic speaker at the conference. (The theme of his father's lullaby for him, he told us later, appears in his own 1984 Piano Concerto, written for the National Symphony in memory of his mother.) The extensive text translations and bios of the composers were diligently researched and put together by Neil Blumofe and lacked only one item of interest: the years of composition. (From) Berlin to Jerusalem at (Merkin Hall)

Because texts were lacking in the Merkin Hall program, "From Berlin to Jerusalem," the following evening, Sam Adler read aloud a translation of the Else Lasker-Schuler text for his 1992 "Reconciliation," performed by Benjie Ellen Schiller and four instruments, conducted, in this instance, by the composer. The pianist was the ubiquitous Ruth Rose, who also accompanied Schiller and baritone Eliot Vogel in arrangements of pioneer songs in Hebrew, arranged by Dessau, Wolpe, Weill, and Erich Walter Sternberg.

Oreen Zeitlin was the alto soloist, also in Hebrew, in the American premiere of Tzvi Avni's Three Lyric Songs on Paul Celan Poems. The loveliest and most spirited performances in the first half of the program were instrumental: Benjamin Fingland and Tanya Ell in Cantillations for Clarinet and Cello by Ofer Ben-Amots (b. 1955); and Aleeza Wadler and Jason Lippmann in the Duo for Violin and Cello by Ben-Zion Orgad (b. 1926), respectively.

In the climactic second half, Rhoda Levine staged the world premiere of "Voices from the Shadow," a musical-theatre piece on poetry of the Holocaust by Gershon Kingsley (b. 1922). Four adult soloists, one child (used primarily as a quasi-audience prop), clarinet and string quartet were conducted from the piano (and accordion) by Jonathan Faiman. Spare but effective, the piece jumped from Yiddish to English to French to German to Czech, never flagging in interest and intensity. Mary Catherine George, Amy R. Goldstein, John Capes, and Larry Picard were the dedicated, focused soloists. (Soul of) Ashkenaz at Tully (Hall)

The climactic concert of the conference, a Kristallnacht commemoration billed as "Soul of Ashkenaz: The Lost Musical Heritage of the German Synagogue," was conducted at Tully Hall by conference coordinator Cantor (and JTS Professor) Neil Levin. Half a dozen choirs and as many soloists and organists collaborated on known and little-known repertoire of Lewandowski; Israel Alter (1901-1979); Emanuel Kirschner (1857-1938); Leon Kornitzer (1975-1947); Eduard Birnbaum (1855-1920) - the El Mole Rahamim, sung by the Pavarotti of American cantors, Alberto Mizrahi; the Viennese father of them all Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890); and Joseph Goldstein (1836-1899) - sung by his grandson Cantor Israel Goldstein, Director of HUC-JIR's School of Sacred Music. Cantors Ira Bigeleisen, bass, and Ida Rae Cahana, soprano, were also outstanding.

The memorial portion of the program was emceed by Ernest W. Michel, tattooed #104995 at Auschwitz. He introduced violinist Henry Meyer from Cincinnati who had written him in response to an article he had written. Meyer's number was 104994: they had stood together in the same line 53 years ago, and had somehow both survived. Meyer's performance, solidly on pitch, was all the more moving given his introduction.

But the most poignant moment came when Mannheim survivor Rudi Appel presented a stone saved from the charred Mannheim synagogue to the rabbi who had bar mitzvahed him there shortly before Kristallnacht, and whose life he had saved by running to warn him after the Gestapo had come for his own father. Rabbi Karl Richter delivered a sermon invoking the psalm verse on "the stone the builders rejected" which "has become the cornerstone of the building" of all the descendants of Ashkenazic culture in American Jewish institutions today. There was not a dry eye in the house as he recalled Joseph's words to his brothers in Genesis: "Ye meant it not for good. But God meant it for good." "You can silence the musician," he went on, "but you cannot destroy music.... God told Abraham: I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. Therefore be you a blessing." The conference was indeed just that.

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