Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

On the Eves of Anniversaries: Bertolt Brecht; Israel
[original title: On the Eve: Brecht Centennials Queler's Jerusalem]
AUFBAU 64:5 Feb. 27, 1998 p13
1025 words
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Paris Commune, March 17, 1971, the American premiere of Bertolt Brecht's last complete full-length play, with a score by Hanns Eisler, Days of the Commune, was presented to an overflow audience at Harvard's Sanders Theatre. Helene Weigel, Brecht's widow, declared herself "sehr zufrieden" with the translation, shortly before she died that year. Long in preparation, the production had also been audiotaped earlier in the week at the studios of Boston's WGBH and was radio broadcast in its entirety the following day (the actual anniversary).

A visit this month to those studios by the translator and director of that production found no one there today whose tenure or memory at the station dates back that far. So, although a number of programs were aired in conjunction with this year's Brecht centennial, no archival material from that period had been tapped. A pity. Perhaps for the Eisler centennial this coming July? ("We would like to hear more of this socially-conscious music," wrote one of the reviewers at the time.)

West-Park's Celebrates Brecht

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of Bertolt Brecht's birth, February 9, 1998, the West-Park Chamber Society presented "A Celebration of the Life of Brecht" at the West-Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. This program had also been long in preparation, having been announced and then postponed from months ago. Its centerpiece was the world premiere of a song cycle by Raphael Crystal (b. 1944) etitled "Love Songs for Hard Times," based on a dozen Brecht poems, dating from 1920 to 1956, in the literary translations by John Willett and the late Ralph Manheim, from their Ran-dom House edition of the complete Brecht in English, some volumes of which are still not published.

The settings of the earlier poems were particularly effective and affecting, especially "Discovery About a Young Woman" and "The Opium Smoker," both from 1925, and the two poems of 1934 and 1941 dedicated to Brecht's collaborator Margarete Steffin who died in Russia, enroute, with Brecht, to exile in America. There are better translations, however, of "An die Nachgeboren." And the long sections left unset, to be spoken in that song and in "To My Countrymen," in a way begged the question of how best to musicalize them.

Actor Michael McCormick sang and declaimed all the words in a high baritone with excellent diction and projection, honed in his experience as Thenardier (not "the nardier" as the program comically misprinted) in Les Miserables. The obbligato contrabass of Deb Spohnheimer added color to the pungent accompaniment by the clearlyengaged composer himself at the piano, who modestly credited the overall conception of the cycle to the late Wal Cherry.

Crystal also contributed notes on the three other works on the program. Of these, the least familiar, and least successful, was "Toucher," a 1973 work for a percussionist playing and simultaneously reciting in French, introduced and performed by Gregory Beyer, composed by Vinko Globokar of the former Yugoslavia. Bouncing off readings from short portions of six scenes in Brecht's play Galileo, with seven percussion instruments each corresponding to a French vowel, the piece leaves the listener wondering: "Does this music add anything to the text?"

The program opened with 15 Hanns Eisler songs on Brecht texts, the first two and last five sung by Texan soprano Laurelyn Watson, the rest by Magdeburg mezzo-soprano Carola Gunther. Brian Duford performed the spare accompaniments of the first five on guitar, Artistic Director Erasmia Voukelatos accompanying the remainder at the piano. The clearly committed performances were all in the original language (two of Brecht's Hollywood Elegies were first written in English) except for one song from The Roundheads and the Pointedheads which was sung (verse 1 only; verse 2 omitted) in Eric Bentley's English translation, with credit inadvertently omitted.

The cynical but expressive Berlin Requiem of Kurt Weill concluded the evening. Steven Osgood, who also provided its English translation on the program, conducted the 12-man chorus (singing in fair German) and 12-piece wind band with banjo/guitar, percussion, and organ (Erasmia Voukelatos) accompanying soloists Christian Sebek, tenor, and Andre Solomon-Glover, baritone, who sang most movingly of the dead Unknown Soldier. Works like this will need to be heard again and again[, until war fever is no more].

[Queler's Take on]
Verdi's Jerusalem

"Jerusalem la sainte, La divine cite" ("Jerusalem, the holy, divine city")--sang the "offstage" chorus onstage at Carnegie Hall. A Jewish opera by Verdi, performed on the virtual eve of Israel's semi-centennial? No, actually a reworking and expansion, in French, of his Italian opera I Lombardi into an improbable Crusades musical drama that became his first "grand opera," retitled Jerusalem. Much more difficult to sing than the Italian model, especially with French vowels like those in the word "heureuse" on high notes, the piece demands a solid French heroine, and this performance had one in the lovely soprano Sylvie Valayre, making her splendid New York debut.

Opposite her, Hawaiian tenor Keith Ikaia-Purdy's voice had a nice "ping" to it, and he managed to overcome the libretto's awful French rhymes in his Act II aria to bring down the house--and exchange a kiss with the conductor. Missing from the cast, at short notice, was the announced bass Samuel Ramey as the heavy. In his place, baritone Gary Simpson was an okay but bland fill-in, his previously scheduled role being taken by another baritone in the cast. Why true bass Philip Cokorinos, who shone in another minor role, was not tapped, remains a mystery. It was a little like hearing King Philip in Don Carlo sung by a Rodrigo (Posa).

Conducting the Opera Orchestra of New York she founded 27 years ago, the redoubtable Eve Queler accompanied the soloists and ensembles beautifully, but let the violins' tempo opening Act I and the tenors' pitch in the Act II Pilgrims' Chorus sag. This is music that demands the whip of a Toscanini, a Levine, or a Sinopoli, no matter what one may think of the appropriateness or not of its pro-war message at times like the present.

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