The Museum of Jewish Heritage, near Battery Park in lower Manhattan, has symbolic views of the Statue of Liberty, an unusual gift shop, and, in its glassy new wing, a comfortable 365-seat performance hall. It was a striking place for a November concert series, "Music in Exile", which was introduced by its honorary chairman, James Conlon, who is on a mission to uncover music by composers dispersed or destroyed by Germany’s Third Reich. The planners and performers were Canadian.
Five evenings of lectures and concerts performed by Artists of the Royal Conservatory in Toronto (ARC) came with a 104-page book where Conlon wrote, "We cannot restore to these composers their lost lives. We can, however, play their music." That raises the specter of death camps and the psalmist’s Waters of Babylon. But the performances, mostly US or New York premieres, were not about composers whose lives were snuffed out by gas and other forms of murder. The subtitle, ‘Emigré Composers of the 1930s’, proved accurate because it referred to when they left; the music was written after they resettled.
Landing safely elsewhere, this refugee vanguard became respected composers and teachers, but their works fell into neglect. They came from affluent homes, actually, and were spurred to get out by the violent warning of Kristallnacht, when mobs in Germany and Austria ransacked and burned synagogues and Jewish businesses. (This set of concerts began on its 70th anniversary, November 9.) Hitler wanted them dead and never wanted their music, explained speaker Michael Beckerman. (Another speaker was Gottfried Wagner, the composer’s great-grandson.)
Reading the composers’ biographies in the booklet and hearing these works (many have never been recorded), listeners could form judgements such as: hey, these guys could write—and in styles informed not by homelands or religion but by their adopted countries, where they hit their musical stride. The quality of the pieces, as directed by Simon Wynberg, ruled out inferiority or anti-Semitic politics as the cause of their obscurity. Nor do they fit into previously explored categories of victim, nationalist, or suppressed. These exiled composers point the way to an uncharted fach.
The opening program, retooled at the last minute because of a death in the family of an ensemble player, consisted of substitutions from two later programs. The next, "Continental Britons", showed that one doesn’t have to be Elgar or Vaughan Williams to sound like them. Without government making their lives wretched, these new arrivals assimilated and assumed a conservative, civilized British style that moved through the 20th Century—but not on Schoenberg’s path. Steeling for American or German serialism proved unnecessary.
Robert Kahn (1865-1951), as long-lived as Sibelius, was a Berlin associate of Brahms, Joachim, and Von Bulow. His attractive Suite for violin and piano, composed for violinist Adolf Busch, hews to the tonal and structural world of Brahms (no surprise in 1920s Germany). Pleasantly unchallenging, it is smooth and lyrical with a fiery finale. Violinist Marie Berard, who has introduced works by Bright Sheng and Anthony Davis, had a secure tone; and David Louie, who has worked with the Takacs Quartet, was a close, experienced collaborator in this US premiere. (The handsome Fazioli piano could do with a clearer bass range.)
Matyas Seiber (1905-60) emigrated from Hungary, where he had studied composition with Kodaly and been admired by Bartok. His acerbic Divertimento for clarinet and string quartet mixes tonal and other elements and lies well for the clarinet, cleverly combined with pizzicato and staccato strings. Whether walking, floating, running, or soft, it never got slow or slimy and had a New World Symphonytype modal finale. The aptly named Benjamin Bowman was a solid first violinist.
Franz Reizenstein (1911-68), a Hindemith pupil in Berlin, moved to London and studied with Vaughan Williams; later he performed with cellist Leslie Parnas and was a visiting professor at Boston University. His Piano Quintet, Opus 23, has elements of a score from an industrial film or alternative Plow That Broke the Plains. As the players sloughed through the harmony together, ARC’s sound was predictably full. The driving scherzo with piano in octaves recalled the Brahms Horn Trio or Piano Quintet; and, when the finale’s long-breathed violin melody strode out of the murk, it triumphantly evoked the English cathedral tradition.
The following concert, "A Pole Apart", was devoted to Russian music by Warsaw-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who moved to Russia in 1939 at age of 20 after studies with Szymanowski. He then lived in Tashkent, where he was known as Moishe Vainberg (the usual ARG spelling).
During Weinberg’s 1953 imprisonment under the anti-Semitic Stalin regime, his good friend Shostakovich provisionally adopted his daughter for her safety. When Stalin died a few months later, Weinberg was released and lived productively till 1996. Kondrashin and Rostropovich were among his champions. Much of his work comes from the 1940s, while his colleagues in Germany and Poland were being exterminated. Some comes from as late as the 1980s and 90s, long after the American premiere of Marc Neikrug’s Through Roses, a war narrative written in the early 1980s (newly recorded on Koch) that completed the last "Music in Exile" concert.
Repeated hearings of ARC’s recording of Weinberg’s chamber music increase its appeal (RCA, March/April 2007). The concert began with the Clarinet Sonata, performed by Joaquin Valdepenas and Dianne Werner, who did the recording. It was certainly not English, hardly German or Polish—and no klezmer. From the jaunty and dreamy passages, you could guess he knew Shostakovich (or that Shostakovich knew him).
Weinberg’s songs in a late cycle for bass were listenable but so lugubrious in subject and style (like late Othmar Schoeck) that they make Schubert’s Winterreise feel like springtime. Robert Pomakov shouted, declaimed, cajoled, and grumbled dramatically. No non- Russian should go near this repertory. Werner was the pianist. An early Piano Quintet, Opus 18, was in the style of its time, but, coming after the later songs, it revealed that Weinberg had not yet found himself. Some of it is fairly bleak but confident and harmonized. Bludgeoning its way from start to finish in about 50 minutes, it faded at the end, perhaps from exhaustion. On the recording it seemed shorter and in fact luscious.
This interesting, often highly satisfying, "emigré music" is ready for a closer look.