Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hilan Warshaw’s new documentary “Wagner’s Jews”

Not surprisingly, the 2013 Bicentenary of German composer Richard Wagner’s birth saw a whole range of commemorative cultural activities. One of the most interesting contributions to the debate about Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism is Hilan Warshaw’s new documentary, “Wagner’s Jews”. The 55-minute film was recently presented by the Wagner Society of New York at Columbia University’s Barnard College. Filmed on location in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, Warshaw focuses on Wagner’s complex relationships within his immediate entourage in general, and the Jewish members of his circle, in particular. Overtonefilms Warshaw’s film introduces us to a broad range of Jewish artists who became absolute Wagner devotees and played a critical role in Wagner’s success.
The fact that the German composer surrounded himself with Jewish friends and artists might surprise: Wagner, author of the infamous pamphlet about the role of Judaism in music, “Das Judenthum in der Musik”, left no doubt as to his disdain of Jews. Yet, according to Warshaw, Wagner’s explicitly anti-Semitic attitude not only brought about considerable consternation among Jewish artists, supporters, fans and benefactors, but was also at the very heart of a perverted, reciprocal dependence. Wagner was probing, to great effect, some of his Jewish friends’ deepest vulnerabilities. “Wagner did not surround himself with Jews despite the fact that they were Jewish, but because of it”, says Warshaw.
 “Scholars who question the severe gravity of Wagner’s anti-Semitism in light of his friendships with Jews are overlooking many nuances about those specific relationships”, Warshaw adds. “The fear factor was a great motivator in the psyche of the Jewish German community, which had just gained its independence but still had to prove its cultural equality, all in the face of a worsening anti-Semitism at the time,” explains Warshaw. “Wagner shamelessly used their eagerness to redeem themselves and, calculating on his part, ‘allowed his Jews’ to selflessly engage in his services; copy scores, raise funds… to partake in German culture, and contribute to it.“
Many young Jewish musicians became absolute Wagner devotees, and played a critical role in the promotion of his work and the financial support needed for it. There was teenage piano prodigy, Carl Tausig, and Hermann Levi, the son of a Rabbi, who urged his father to become a member of the Wagner Society. Short of being forced by Wagner to convert to Christianity in order to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, Levi however reassured his independence by declining Wagner’s wishes and threatening to abort his mission.
Another Jewish artist, baritone and theater director Angelo Neumann, became a major producer of Wagner’s work throughout Europe, and the young pianist, Joseph Rubinstein, who had lived with the Wagner family for many years, committed suicide shortly after Wagner passed away.
In evaluating Wagner’s anti-Semitism, some of today’s artists offer rather nuanced opinions. Pianist Evgeny Kissin concluded in Christopher Nupen’s 2004 Holocaust film, “We Want the Light” that “… the talent and genius of an artist, and his or her personal traits are just not the same thing.” And Zubin Mehta, conductor for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra argues that forgoing Wagner, the artistic forefather of composers such as Bruckner, Mahler and Schoenberg, would be similar to enjoying the fruit of a tree without acknowledging the tree’s roots (in Nupen, “We Want the Light”). On the other hand, Mehta fully respects the negative feelings of the generation of Holocaust survivors.
Warshaw admits that one of the motivations behind the film was to explore his own ambivalence towards Wagner. Born into a musical family, he studied violin and conducting before turning to film, and did not get to listen to Wagner growing up: “There was so much associated with Wagner, in connection with my family’s losses and tragedies during the Nazi area, so whenever Wagner came on the radio got shut off. When I finally had the opportunity to study and play Wagner’s music, I found it very striking, even electrifying … and when I became a filmmaker, I saw that in terms of links between music and film, Wagner is a very influential figure. Early film composers like Erich Korngold or Max Steiner, for example (“Gone with the Wind”) built on Wagnerian leitmotifs and his unending melody.”
Formally studying the composer’s music gave Warshaw a greater emotional distance to the man, which allowed for an appreciation of Wagner’s creativeness. “In a way, he thinks like a composer of film scores,” says Warshaw, “… his dramatic vision is sort of a precursor of film. His operas are shattering experiences for me, yet I have no illusion about how his anti-Semitism must be embedded within the concept of his art; and that is troubling for me, and has to be. It is the price I pay for my admission of enjoying his music.”
Of course, there were other composers who harbored anti-Semitic sentiments. Chopin is one example, but then Wagner was a much more outspoken and political figure.
The film also focuses on today’s Wagner policy in Israel. Even though there is no real political codex that implicitly forbids Wagner’s music on stage, musicians like Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta and others have failed in their efforts to introduce Wagner’s work to a majority of Israelis. Yet Wagner is often played on Israeli radio. Influenced by strong anti-Wagner sentiments and forces that appeal to issues bigger and more important, Israelis have bowed to the naysayers for now.
This conflict takes us back to 1938, the year of the ‘Kristallnacht’. Then, a performance of Wagner’s Overture of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by the orchestra now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was stopped, and, as a result of the Nürnberg race laws and the memories of Holocaust survivors recalling the horrors of Wagner’s music blasting from loudspeakers in German concentration camps, Wagner was dropped from any appropriate concert program altogether.
The fact that many Wagner scholars and expert performers, as well as enthusiasts, are Jewish and a Wagner society was founded in Israel in 2011 by Jonathan Livny, did not lessen the outcry in the Israeli press when, in 2011, the Israel Chamber Orchestra under Roberto Paternostro travelled to Bayreuth for their first ever-performance on Wagner’s turf.Interview Roberto Paternostro

Warshaw’s film doesn’t provide the answers to many of the questions the topic raises, but rather expects to create a discussion and to make audiences reflect for themselves.Says Warshaw: "The objective is not to present just the case for the defense or prosecution, but the whole trial."
To mark the Bicentenary of Wagner's birth, WAGNER’S JEWS was broadcast in Europe on ARTE on May 19, and will be re-broadcast by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) on November 18, 2013.
The film has started screenings in the U.S. and internationally, at venues including Yale, Columbia, and Boston universities, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York, the London's Barbican Centre, and the London Jewish Cultural Centre.
“Wagner’s Jews” will be distributed in North America by First Run Features.

Classical music moving forward to its original roots – the intimate space – now at SubCulture

Classical music used to be heard in salons and palace ballrooms, so it’s not an entirely new concept to present classical music, like other genres long since have, in intimate spaces where audiences can enjoy a closer connection with their favorite performers in a relaxed setting. One of the first of these venues in the New York downtown scene to include classical music was Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street, which opened in 2008. Here, New York classical fans had their first chance to feel as cool as their Pop and Jazz cohorts, and enjoy a slider and a drink while listening to some bold star pianists like Simone Dinnerstein, Hélène Grimaud, and Natasha Paremski. To add excitement, these pianists often paired up with a young, attractive cellist or violinist. I especially remember programs with these matches, such as cellist Zuill Bailey paired with Simone Dinnerstein, violinist Misha Quint and Natasha Paremski, and the husband-wife piano duo Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung. These performances were not taken lightly by the press. Pianist Jeremy Denk’s program at the Highland Ballroom in 2009 attracted the New York Times’ attention, as have most of the performers on LPR’s somewhat leisurely curated programs, which include classical mixed with jazz, tango, and contemporary. The night after his Avery Fisher Hall performances with the New York Philharmonic, pianist Kirill Gerstein told his LPR fans how much he enjoyed mixing it up a bit. As an ideal place for a combination performance/CD release after-party, Le Poisson Rouge has attracted such recording artists as mandolinist Avi Avital, who celebrated his Grammy nomination of a Naxos recording with the Metropolis Ensemble and famed violinist Gil Shaham, who connected a short, droll video clip of himself and pianist Yefim Bronfman playing a high-caliber performance, to his evening’s presentation. Classical repertoire also made a timely entrance into Joe’s Pub, which has lately featured some European artists, including pianist Lily Maisky, who performed with Misha Quint and signed their just-released CD afterwards for fans. The performers seem to enjoy playing in the less-formal venue, glad to have the opportunity to perform for some of their peers, who may not venture out to the concert hall frequently, or at all. What draws new audiences to these settings? Of course, the immediate proximity that patrons have to the performers, and the comfortable setting in which they can sit and listen to the music appeals to a more casual lifestyle. Also, table service during performances is a welcome change from seeing their favorite artists from afar on the big hall stages. Another attraction for all is that it’s not unusual to find other star artists in the audience, which creates a feeling of an artistic community setting that everybody enjoys being part of. The other night at Joe’s Pub, for example, illustrious cellist Misha Maisky was in attendance to support his daughter on stage, and prominent violinist Joshua Bell also came to the show along with a group of friends.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       SubCulture – Photo: Ryan Jensen
With the opening of the new venue SubCulture this September, however, new rules have come into play to accommodate its owners’ vision. In an interview at the venue’s backstage office, Marc and Steven Kaplan, owners of the new spot on Bleecker Street, which is just a couple of blocks down the road from LPR, shared their ideas: “We had gone to LPR and other venues and truly enjoyed hanging out there very much. We also love all kinds of jazz clubs and eating, drinking, and listening. However for SubCulture, our goal was not necessarily to become part of New York’s nightlife. We rather wanted something more theatrical, which concentrated on the performance alone, even though we do have a bar.” That’s why instead of the cocktail tables of LPR, Joe’s Pub, or others, one finds rows of old theatre seats at SubCulture, making it clear that the audience is the audience while the music plays on stage.
SubCulture - Photo: Ryan Jensen
With SubCulture, the uptown classical programmers and institutions saw an opportunity to finally get a piece of the trendy, downtown action. “Last April, after the 92nd Street Y’s downtown Tribeca location closed its doors, the Y came scouting for a new location,” says Marc Kaplan.


Photo: SubCulture’s channeled hallway leading to the performance space below @getclassical

“The 92nd Street Y had made plans to coordinate some classical music events with the New York Philharmonic’s contemporary CONTACT! series and other artists…,” like the famed pianist Yefim Bronfman, this season’s New York Philharmonic pianist-in-residence, as well as other authorities of the music world. “They had no idea that we were here, but came to the theatre upstairs. We were still knee-deep in the construction process, but they must have seen the huge potential interest that the venue could hold, affirming our own instincts about the possibilities.” November 4th, SubCulture will host its first collaborative event with the New York Philharmonic and 92Y, in an evening presenting CONTACT! artists with the eminent conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. On January 13th, CONTACT!’s young artists will partake in a trio with pianist Yefim Bronfman. Besides the exciting program and performers, both events should be memorable and chock full of press, as uptown music venues attempt to take their hold in downtown’s alternative music industry.

Photo: (left)Marc and Steven Kaplan at their bar at SubCulture @getclassical
This is a big opportunity for the two Kaplan brothers, who grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, and arrived on the scene with lots of supporters from their hometown and a set of skills that they feel make them the perfect partners for this uptown-downtown mutual undertaking. The joint partnership and its promising beginning has given the brothers’ own relationship a new energy, which has enabled them to achieve what they feel is an “authentic venue with an atmosphere that offers the best possible climate, concentrated on performances for a small but not tiny audience, while still retaining that ‘cool’ feeling of a unique downtown space – a diamond in the rough.” This is not the brothers’ first project working together. “We wrote some music, we talked about real estate…. but SubCulture is the perfect merger of both our worlds and all our dreams.” Steven has a business background. Marc is in charge of production. Music has always been a connective tissue in their relationship, as music and the arts played a big role in their lives growing up. Steve picked up the trumpet at West Hartford High School, which offered a great jazz program with many guest artists, who performed and inspired the young students. When Steven and Marc attended college in Washington, D.C, Steven went down the road of finance, but picked up piano improvisation later on. He enjoys playing tremendously: “Playing music makes me happy,” he says.
                                                                                                                                                                       Photo: Steven (left) and Marc Kaplan at SubCulture @getclassical
Marc remembers many car rides during which he and his brother would listen to each other’s favorite tunes, comparing their latest tracks. He himself always stayed in music, everything from instrumental and voice, as well as conducting. From early on, he conducted youth orchestras, always finding a way to cast his brother in them, and continued in music education afterwards. Music continues to be a “feel-good ground of sharing our interests with each other.” SubCulture feels like the natural course for their professional relationship and their relationship to music, which welcomes variety. When the brothers started looking for the “perfect” venue that would become SubCulture two and a half years ago, it took them about a year to find the location. “We brought a certain naiveté to it. When describing our ‘ideal’ place to each other, our vision took shape to include intimacy, artistic design, great lighting and sound, not too large, an open feeling…to enjoy performances on stage in a personal way, “ they say, reminiscent of a fun process. “When we saw this raw space, it fit the bill. The only thing, which was totally opposite to our vision, were the columns. We did not really want them since we thought they would block the view but we did end up having lots of columns which kind of now define the space at SubCulture.” Steven and Marc have many ideas, but have not yet completely decided on the direction of their curating, with regard to programs or even general set usage. “We can see the venue work successfully for many productions; the space is geared towards all kinds of music performances with its great acoustics, but comedy shows or even business meetings and fashion events can work well there, too.”
SubCulture - Photo: Ryan Jensen
In the meantime, they are aiming to create the best performance space of their league, building up trust with their new audiences and customers. And for whatever event they are hosting, they stay involved in every production they book, making sure it works with the atmosphere of the space, satisfies their new audiences, and reflects a certain sophisticated fingerprint of style. Is downtown becoming the new uptown for New York’s avid classical music lovers?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Peoples’ Symphony Concerts –Frank Salomon’s revelation of music for the people

 Photo:Courtesy Town Hall
Peoples’ Symphony Concerts are not really advertised, yet the performance series at their two venues -- New York City’s Town Hall in the daytime and Washington Irving High School at night -- are usually sold out, thanks to their largely subscription-based, enthusiastic and loyal audience.
Inspired by life lessons learned through intimate contact with the greats in the world of classical music, impresario Frank Salomon’s continued mission is to make these great values accessible to all audiences, as he says: “in the good old-fashioned, socialist spirit.” The idea that everyone who longs to hear great concerts should be accommodated, no matter what their income can afford, is the message that drives Peoples’ Symphony Concerts since it’s founding in 1900. The target audience is old and young alike, and performances are especially geared towards low-income music lovers who appreciate the privilege of hearing a premium selection of artists, among them some superstars of the classical music scene who make it all possible by playing for a fraction of their regular fees. It is the ethical principle that all should be able to benefit their cultural appreciation that has allowed this very established series to hold its own.  Classical music, often scrutinized for belonging only to its elite establishment, is clearly not tied to this particular stigma any longer, at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.

Concerts are presented in three different series’.  The Arens and Mann Series take place on Saturday nights at Washington Irving High School and the Festival Series is held on Sunday afternoons at historic Town Hall,  a hall where Isaac Stern, Janet Baker and many other great artists made their NY debuts. The two Saturday night series as named for Franz Arens, the original founder of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts and for Joseph Mann, who served the organization in a management capacity for some fifty-nine years, presented such legendary artists as Claudio Arrau, Gina Bachauer, Josef Szigeti, and Isaac Stern. After his death in 1973, Frank Salomon became Peoples’ Symphony Concerts’manager.               Frank Salomon - Photo:@getclassical
When the series started in 1900, concerts were held at the old hall at Cooper Union, and were established with a mission to “bring the best music to students, and workers at minimum prices.” These concerts were underwritten by sponsors like Nora Godwin, Henry Clay Frick, William K. Vanderbuilt, Mrs. Otto Kahn, and Solomon and Danile Guggenheim. The first President of the Peoples’ Symphony was Severo Mallet-Prevost. In 1918, the orchestra that gave the series its name was retired because of its immense cost; only the chamber music and solo recital programs continued.   In the 1970s, the Festival Series was moved from Washington Irving High School on Saturday nights to Town Hall on Sunday afternoons helping to serve those audience members unable to go out in the evenings as well as families.
At Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, single tickets are $13 each, but six-concert series tickets are sold at a price of $37 for both the Arens and Mann Series’, and $39-$59 for the Festival Series.  This low fee for six concerts usually buys just one ticket at most other concert halls, so the subscription is very worthwhile for patrons, even at the risk of missing a date or two. If that happens and a subscriber cancels, a last-minute ardent patron may even get lucky with the added availability. “We often experience a standing room rush, says Salomon during our interview in his modest managing office, home to ‘Frank Salomon and Associates’ on the 7th floor of an unimposing building on W 27th street. A small conference table surrounded by a few office staff sections seems to gain in dimension as soon as Salomon introduces himself, sits down, and begins to share some of his anecdotes, spinning a narrative spiked with many names of great musicians who have touched his life during his long-lasting career, and opened many doors for him. Without his great talent to connect his backstage friendships with the artists’ performances on stage, the modern history of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts would be unfathomable. The artists in Salomon’s life are irrevocably connected with his vision for the series, which is one of few that advocate the importance of making music programs inexpensive and accessible.
Salomon recalls his parents’ firm roots in German Academia and medicine, before they found themselves arriving at Ellis Island as Jewish immigrants in 1935. Emotively, he describes how hard it had been for them to build their new lives in their American exile after his father, a sociology scholar and a polio victim, had been engaged to join the newly-formed Graduate Faculty of The New School in New York by co-founder and President Alvin Johnson, a man famed for having saved many Jewish Scholars’ lives. His mother was a medical doctor but did not practice in the U.S and his great-aunt Alice Salomon founded what is believed to be the first school for social work in the world in Berlin, now, the Alice Salomon University.  Salomon recalls attending, as a five-year-old, a dinner in her honor at a major hotel in New York and wondering all evening whether he would be allowed to take home one of the little American flags that served as table decorations.  After all the speeches, he did pay attention when three musician friends of his great-aunt came out to play – the Busch-Serkin Trio.  Who could have known that eighteen years later, that little boy would start a thirty-plus year relationship with Rudolf Serkin and a still-active fifty-plus year relationship with the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont that would change his life. He describes his parents’ worldview, and a milieu in which culture in general, but especially music and theater, played a vibrant role in setting the tone for his later involvement with the performing arts.
Salomon is not a musician himself, except for a stint as a member of the Interracial Fellowship Chorus, while completing his liberal arts college degree at New York University, but he always showed a knack for organizing concert events. He arranged interviews for the conductor of the choir and reviews of their concerts with the New York Times and radio station WQXR, and helped to arrange the choir’s performances, forging an early connection with the Town Hall venue. Yet after his reserve program in the National Guard at age 22, Salomon was still undecided about which direction he was heading for. It was 1959, and Eva Simons, wife of the president of the New School, Hans Simons, had started to present a concert series there with Alexander Schneider, the energetic virtuoso violinist of the famed Budapest Quartet, and an active force in the classical music world. “Schneider wanted the concerts to be available for everybody, charging only 1 Dollar per ticket,” remembers Salomon. Schneider had also been a principal figure at the Marlboro Festival, and when Mrs. Simons volunteered there in 1958, they both got Rudolf Serkin to agree to perform a benefit recital  for the two organizations at the New School. Salomon was hired to help promote and organize the event. “There was such an overflow of audience for Schneider’s regular $ 1 concerts, that two performances had to be scheduled – one was held at 3 and one at 9. Hard to imagine, Serkin had agreed to play his immense program- the Waldstein and the last three Beethoven Sonatas, twice the same day!” Salomon shares in amazement. This remarkable benefit concert on May 17th, 1959, an exception to the usual $1 per seat policy, made a substantial profit for both the New School and the Marlboro Festival.  It also marked Salomon’s official entry into the music business.

 Frank Salomon - Photo @getclassical
Introduced to Rudolf Serkin by Mrs. Simon, Salomon started at Marlboro as a part-time employee the following year, alongside bassoonist Anthony Checchia, who had taken over Marlboro’s fast-growing administration. Marlboro became more than a job; it marked for Salomon a lifelong commitment, a family, and an inspiration all at once. Salomon still works closely with Anthony Checchia, whom he describes as a dear friend: “I joke that we have been married to each other even longer than we have been married to our spouses, whom we both met at Marlboro.” Salomon describes Marlboro in the times of its veteran founder, Rudolf Serkin, with great admiration. “He had intuition, and a great vision,” he says. “It came to me when we were celebrating Marlboro’s 60th anniversary that the way music is approached there, it’s about life lessons just as much as it is about music lessons. Playing Chamber Music together requires you not only to know your own part but the entire score. You have to learn to listen – and to compromise. You have to be able to forge many voices into one to become a true vessel for the composer’s vision. You have the chance to discover the music constantly anew and with that it’s just as much about self-discovery. “
Salomon explains the unique situation that Marlboro offers, distinguishing its atmosphere from the usual rush and lack of rehearsal times at other places, and explaining how it presents a tranquil, lush environment in which it is possible for artists to explore the music intensively. “Sometimes musicians work the entire seven weeks on one piece and you discover much more than the notes and the necessary technique to master the piece. It is truly about music and its humanity and to my knowledge unmatched by any other institution.”
Another human aspect of Marlboro that makes it dear to so many is the feeling of belonging to a larger family that one experiences while attending the festival. “Serkin himself had six children and his family helped create a feeling of extended family. One of the greatest things for everybody is gathering together in the common dining hall, where many generations share meals and mutual communication. And then of course, there is the idea, started at Marlboro, of young artists playing together with the master rather than being coached by them – like an apprentice in medieval times, learning by doing.” t It is not hard to imagine that this creates an exchange that can truly inspire, and translates into a new generation of confident and creative performers.
In 1964, one thing led to the next and Salomon started his own management company whose roster of pianists alone includes masters like Leon Fleisher and Richard Goode. “All influences in my life came together and the fact that I knew all the fantastic talents through Marlboro helped me to become a better manager and administrator. Alexander Schneider had performed at Peoples’ Symphony as a member of the Budapest Quartet, and got friendly with my predecessor at Peoples’ Symphony, Joseph Mann. Mann came to the Schneider concert series and we got to know each other.  He invited Schneider each year to come with  artists of his choice including pianists Peter Serkin, Rudolf Serkin’s son, and Murray Perahia, alongside other Marlboro musicians.  When his health started to fail, Mann asked me to succeed him and we worked together on the 1972-73 season until his death in 1973.”  Salomon developed a true passion and what he describes as a ‘peripheral vision’ for recognizing true talent in performers who can communicate the composer’s intentions from their hearts, and make them come to life for others, without putting themselves into the foreground. Schneider himself had become discouraged with the business side of the music industry, and wanted it to remain a passion. Opportunity amalgamated Salomon’s different hats of manager, administrator, and producer.  In his case, his aspiration to make a difference in people’s lives through music unites on one small calling card with a big reach; he brings with him a slew of world-renowned artists who bring in the crowds as well as many new talented performers, and he is able to do this at Marlboro, New School Concerts (the former Schneider Concert Series), and Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.

Newly renovated Washington Irving High School Concert Hall, Photo: @getclassical

“Our audiences are enthusiastic and artists enjoy performing here, for a crowd of 1300-1400 people, just about every time. It is thanks to these great artists, who are the nucleus that helps to sell the tickets and pulls the audiences in, and make it possible to present also young and new artists. Who does not want to hear Radu Lupu at his only New York recital, this year, here, at Town Hall? It works thanks to these great artists, who are funding Peoples’ Symphony Concerts by accepting minimal fees…because they believe in our mission: in the value of presenting great music at affordable prices,” says Salomon.
Salomon’s understanding of the different needs and preferences of his audiences goes even further, and does not stop at the wallet: “Seats at Irving High School are unreserved, so people can sit together, even if they come last minute. Town Hall concert seats are upholstered and reserved, and cater to an audience that prefers the afternoon,” mentions Salomon.
Salomon loves his big names, most of them old friends, but in the end Peoples’ Symphony Concerts are just as much about the young artists who yet have to build their reputation as they are about the greats.  Salomon takes enormous pride in that: “People buy their tickets because of the names they know – but are often taken by surprise when they hear a new talent and enjoy the performance just as much or more. There is something exciting in the air – introducing something new.”  One of such up-and-coming talents to mention is the Israeli Chamber Project. The young ensemble will perform at Town Hall in 2014.
Audience members have credited Peoples’ Symphony with great things. “One woman in the audience, who had recently lost her husband, told me: ‘You people with your wonderful concerts I am able to attend, you keep me alive,’” shares Salomon, beaming a bit.  A precious critique indeed and an inspiration to plan the next concert!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Scarlatti Recreated

Sandro Russo’s Scarlatti Recreated, released Sep 24, 2013 on the Musical Concepts label, is an ambitious and fanciful undertaking in that the ‘reinvented’ repertoire is highly original.  In fact, on the album there are four world-premiere recordings referring to the essential Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). A contemporary of Händel, Scarlatti’s baroque writing had been largely forgotten, gaining new popularity in the mid-twentieth century, as the liner notes of the recording suggest. In this recording, Russo deals with extraordinarily difficult material, solving their intricacies with his own, masterly understanding of the genre.  He manages to adapt with a most elegant reverence to the different composers stylistic commentaries, without ever losing his own sensitive and personal touch.
Based in New York, Italian-born Sandro Russo has been lauded as an exceptionally poetic pianist with verve for the newfound joy of transcription. In 2005, he met Vladimir Leyetchkiss at the International Conference of the Rachmaninoff Society in London, whose transcription of Rachmaninov’s waltz and romance from his 2nd suite for two pianos Op. 17 caught Russo’s interest. Leyetchkiss approached Russo to play some of the movements of the 2nd suite transcription in recital. Leyetchkiss had originally intended this oeuvre for Cyprien Katsaris, who never ended up playing it; Russo premiered both the Waltz and Romance during the 2008/2009-concert season with great critical success and enthusiastic approval from Leyetchkiss.
About Scarlatti Recreated, Russo remarks, “The idea of ‘recreating’ Scarlatti originated primarily from the basic fact that his work wasn’t conceived for the modern piano but rather for the harpsichord.”  Scarlatti’s most significant musical contribution is his oeuvre of 555 keyboard sonatas written for harpsichord, chronologically catalogued by the most comprehensive numbering system of his work, which was created by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953.  With a strong sense for the historic component of pianism, Sandro Russo has enjoyed playing historic instruments and performing programs that position the pianistic experience into a solid historical context.
Obviously there was something in Scarlatti’s intimate and harmonious melodies that inspired a historic response, one which bears as much witness to the styles of the times in which the various transcriptions were written – virtuosic, romantic, and expressive – as it does to the subtleties of Scarlatti’s music itself.
Sandro Russo, Photo:Ilona Oltuski@getclassical
An inherent ingredient in a transcription is its complexity. Based on the source material, the transcription evokes the original but often tries to go beyond it, adding a personal commentary. This often results in adding harmonic voices or melodic embellishments, translating into intricate technical demands on the pianist. Russo’s disc features transcriptions of Scarlatti’s material by pianists of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Mid-nineteenth century transcriptionist Carl Czerny paid homage to Scarlatti along with other composers while he worked at the center of Viennese pianism. Piano virtuoso Carl Tausig and Louis Brassin, also best known for his Wagner transcriptions, added their own virtuosic flair to Scarlatti’s material, and included in their interpretations a fuller-ranged and polyphonic orchestral configuration of the original music.  At the turn of the century, Enrique Granados set out to transcribe a set of Scarlatti Sonatas in a highly romanticized fashion of the time. Famed virtuoso and composer of the mid-twentieth century, Ignaz Friedman, was renowned for his Bach and Scarlatti transcriptions in addition to his Chopin performances; the Polish pianist brought a lot of Chopin’s harmonic influences into Scarlatti’s sound world. The compositions of the eccentric Charles-Valentin Alkan, a colleague of Chopin and part of the same French bohemian circle of the mid-nineteenth century, is known to test the limits of even the most virtuoso piano playing. He included references in one of his manuscripts to “Alla D. Scarlatti.” Slightly more interested in a historistic view of the twentieth century are Jean Françaix, Rayomond Leventhal, and Michael Habermann, each of whom approach Scarlatti with their personal historistic perspective.
Russo’s own revelations of fascinating details are projected with great sovereignty in Scarlatti Recreated, perhaps most brilliantly expressed in his performance of Marc-André Hamelin’s EtudeVI: Esercizio per Pianoforte (Omaggio a Domenico Scarlatti).  Marc-Andrè Hamelin is renowned for presenting the works of lesser-known composers (including Alkan’s), and works with pieces that many deem difficult to handle, remaining unfazed by their tremendous intricacies. The contemporary pianist/composer and arranger makes, in his own words, “a purely affectionate tribute” to Scarlatti, as mentioned in the liner notes.    listen      
Russo manages to keep the listener engaged throughout the different ‘quotations’ of Scarlatti’s underlying impact on the music’s clarity and finesse, which aids the listener in grasping a deeper look into the curious process of musical composition, as well.
The recording is a poignant example of Russo’s thoughtful and meaningful programs, executed with great imagination and musical dexterity.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Orchestra Jacobsplatz Munich comes to town!

Photo: Erol Gurian – Orchestra Jakobsplatz
GetClassical mentioned the up-and-coming Orchestra in an article following Munich’s Classical: Next 2012.
This October, Orchestra Jacobsplatz Munich, an international group of musicians with a unique focus on Jewish heritage, comes to New York.
The ensemble consists of young professional musicians from over 20 countries who have a strong emphasis on playing renowned, as well as rarely performed works by Jewish composers, in addition to other works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Daniel Grossmann, the orchestra’s founding director and conductor, grew up and lives in Germany, part of the second generation of Jews born after World War II.  He explains the need to find a new relationship to one’s Jewish heritage and artistic identity as a German Jew in this generation: “I aim to present Jewish Music in a current context, not in its usual depiction as something just related to the Holocaust, or categorized as ‘Entartete Kunst’,”explains artistic director Grossmann, who founded the orchestra in 2005.

Since 2009, Grossmann, who very slightly resembles a young Gustav Mahler, has looked to broaden the reach of the orchestra beyond its local German boundaries.
Internationally, there is relatively little known about the newfangled cultural Jewish life and its emergent influx within today’s German communities. After great waves of Russian Jewish Immigration in the 90s, as well as the construction of new synagogues and new Jewish community centers in Germany, like the one in Munich from which the orchestra derives its name, Germany’s young generation became aware of a Jewish culture that needs to be both remembered and redefined.
“We commission new works of Jewish contemporary composers on a regular basis,” says Grossmann in an interview leading up to the orchestra’s US/Canada tour this fall. Grossmann will also offer works written for different instrumental constellations for his chamber orchestra.  “We do intend to create a new Jewish Zeitgeist, which focuses on its connection to our present time, not solely on the past’s memorial characteristics. All musicians, that are not at all necessarily Jewish themselves, come from totally different backgrounds and bring their own subtle influences and imagination to the music, which translates into a broad cultural exchange.”
Besides a high standard of musicianship, there is a special requirement for the members of the orchestra, which entails sensitivity towards the issue at hand: the comprehension of Jewish identity in its cultural dimension today. “Take for example the Partita of Gideon Klein, a Jewish composer who wrote this work in a concentration camp during Nazi-times, his last work before he died in the KZ’s gas-chambers,” says Grossman. “The musicians who play in our orchestra have to be able to grasp the affecting aspects of such music, in order to encourage a mutual communication and exploration on different emotional levels. Through such profound musical journeys, the specifically Jewish aspect has the potential to amplify the general, human agenda, which is what ultimately connects our generation – and our orchestra on an expressive level.”
On Monday, October 21nd at 8 pm the orchestra will make its New York debut at Peter Norton Symphony Space with a program featuring music by Mendelssohn, Klein, Mahler, and Schulhoff.  The performance will include a pre-concert lecture by NYU Professor Michael Beckerman.  Tickets are available at Symphony Space’s website.
For more dates for its North American tour and general information about Orchestra Jacobsplatz Munich, visit the orchestra’s website.