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Letters From The Diaspora

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
12/05/2001 -  
Marcel Rubin: Symphony # 4
Julius Buerger: Adagio from the Cello Concerto
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Cello Concerto
Egon Wellesz: Symphony # 3

Jan Vogler (cello)
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

To enter Avery Fisher Hall at the orchestra level one must pass through part of the Bruno Walter Gallery, a continually changing display of scores, memorabilia and photos featuring different musicians of the past. Doing so last evening was especially significant as the American Symphony Orchestra presented a program entitled “A World Apart” which introduced the compositions of four expatriate Viennese at least three of whom had a direct professional or social relationship with the great conductor. Walter was a major link in the cultural chain of those times: as the assistant of Mahler and a patient of Freud, he was familiar with the slightly older generation; as a mentor, he had a profound influence on the younger graduating class which so enriched the landscape of twentieth century art music.

Marcel Rubin is the odd man out in this concert’s quartet of composers as he left Vienna early and established himself in Paris. His Symphony #4 is a very grim piece written during the darkest days of the Second World War and revised to become even more hopeless with the excision of the pacific movements and the addition of a children’s dance of death by starvation inspired by the Kinderkreuzzug 1939 of Brecht. This first movement was poignantly played by the orchestra, the solo viola’s plangent song of the Pied Piper reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Vergangenes. Some of the extended fanfares got away from the trumpet section in movements two and three but overall this was a sensitive rendition and, considering the state of the world at the moment of its creation, Rubin may be forgiven for pushing the “dies irae” button a few too many times.

Even for Leon Botstein, the inclusion of a portion of a work by Julius Buerger was an exercise in the obscure (in fact, this piece and the proceeding Rubin are so unknown that pre-concert lecturer Richard Wilson could not share any recorded examples with his audience). This talented conductor was already well established at the Metropolitan Opera thanks to the intervention of Walter but narrowly escaped incarceration by the Nazis by fortuitously being in Paris (exactly like Walter) during the Anschluss. Living a life of quiet desperation, Buerger worked on Broadway and lived in Queens to the ripe old age of 98. The excerpt from his Cello Concerto, so lovingly performed by former wunderkind Jan Vogler (he was principal of the Dresden Staatskapelle at the unheard of age of 20), was very moving, especially when one learns that it was rededicated by the composer to his mother when, at 78, she died on her journey to Auschwitz. Mr. Vogler serves a generous portion of vibrato with his romanticism and projects a gorgeous, if unprepossessing, tone. The ASO supported him expertly, keeping this beautiful air on the dignified side of the sentiment-sentimentality border.

Imagine a popular movie made today where the dramatic action centers around the dress rehearsal of a new cello concerto! Audiences in 1946 could still relate to a film which presupposes their knowledge that Shostakovich and Stravinsky at least exist. Erich Wolfgang Korngold waited a long time to be involved in this Claude Rains/Bette Davis potboiler wherein the music itself is a central part of the story (he also makes a brief cameo as the conductor of the Haydn at the outset). Korngold was a good friend of Walter and one of the lions of the expat community in Hollywood whose only mistake was to try and return to Vienna after the war. His Cello Concerto contains some of his most lyrical writing (the second subject melody is simply ravishing) as well as some of his most thrilling (the two cadenzas are integral to the excitement of the film and truly stand out in live performance). Mr. Vogler really invested himself in this reading and immediately made the piece his own. His pyrotechnical fingering catapulted the solo part into the stratosphere of pure entertainment value as he whipped up the crowd like an evangelist. It was particularly heartwarming to hear such a roar of approval at the end of this twelve-minute masterpiece (expanded by Korngold to twice its original cinematic length for the concert hall). This orchestra consistently presents us all with the buried jewels of music history and they heartily deserve the kind of enthusiastic applause that they received last night.

But by far the most impressive find was saved for after the interval. Musicologists know of Egon Wellesz through his scholarly work as an Oxford don in the field of Byzantine music but few are acquainted with his large symphonic output. In the capable hands of Botstein, this Symphony # 3 appeared to be an important masterwork, somehow outside of the average listener’s ken. Bruckner, complete with heraldic third movement, comes most solidly to mind during the unveiling of the score, but there is a freshness and individuality in Wellesz’ majesty which is positively infectious. Another Bruno Walter associate, this cofounder of the International Society for Contemporary Music was exactly the same age as Alban Berg (and only two years older than Webern) and was a devoted 2nd Viennese member as a youth (he wrote the very first biography of Schoenberg). The ASO did a wonderful job of bringing this music to life, thrilling and serene by turns, forceful and clear in their communication to 21st century ears. I, for one, will certainly search out more Wellesz to hear (I confess to knowing so little about him that I confused him with Hugo Weisgall when first learning of this upcoming program) and this type of inspiration is exactly what Mr. Botstein is endeavoring to disseminate. An educator first and foremost, Professor B deserves high praise indeed not only for unearthing these gems but also for polishing their performances to such a radiant sheen.

Freud’s wedding day was September 13, 1886, the twelfth birthday of Schoenberg. In 1891, he moved to his house at Berggasse 19, just around the corner from Bruckner. He treated Mahler for depression and Walter for hysterical paralysis and was, in turn, deeply inspired by the Mahler and Roller production of Don Giovanni. In those halcyon days, Vienna was the undisputed capital of the musical universe. During those years, the young Egon Wellesz disappointed his father by announcing that he would not go into the family textile business but would rather pursue life as a composer, so transported was he by a night of Der Freischuetz under Mahler. This new rebellious generation would spread the gospel of Vienna to the farthest corners of the globe (Australian classical music would be unrecognizable without the Austrian emigration) and influence cultural history significantly. Bravo to Botstein for keeping us forever aware of their creative journey.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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