What do a California Math teacher and a Vermont troubadour have in common? Both come from celebrated Austrian families who came to the United States to live a life more free than what was becoming possible in 1930s Germany. Larry Schoenberg and Elisabeth Von Trapp are the current generation of Austrian fervor, genius, and musical talent that carries forward their families’ legacy, as limned in Judith Clurman and Essential Voices USA’s most recent “Composer Speaks,” “Austrian Émigrés: Schoenberg, Von Trapp, and the Power of Music.”
Essential Voices USA has a maestra-mind in Judith Clurman, who wove music and conversation into a memorable tapestry. Naomi Lewin coined that phrase in introducing the dramatis personae on the august panel of top names in musical theater like Ted Chapin, David Chase, and Larry Hochman, as well as Elisabeth Von Trapp, granddaughter of Maria and Georg, and via telephone, Larry Schoenberg, son of composer Arnold Schoenberg. The panel was moderated by Lewin, WQXR radio personality and raconteur, who kept the conversation sparkling. A special person also in the audience that evening was Heather Menzies, who had starred as Louisa in “The Sound of Music” film! The evening had a feel of a family gathering and a musical salon, all at once, in the intimate DiMenna Space for Classical Music
Tedd Firth did the honors on piano and featured soloists were Maureen McKay, soprano, and Joseph Beutel, bass-baritone. Essential Voices USA began with Schoenberg’s “Am Scheideweg” (At the Crossroads) and it was haunting in that space, with the somber feel of the piano and voices. It was written in 1925, when the first rumblings of change were happening, and these are reflected in this piece as a metaphysical query that echoes strongly today.
Next, we had our first taste of McKay’s soprano in a rendition of Brahms “Lullaby,” auf Deutsch. The clarity of her voice was achingly beautiful. When Beutel joined her on Schoenberg’s “Lullaby,” the richness and the blend of both parents singing their baby to sleep, first alternating, then joining together as one, is so unusual. It’s rare for culture to include a father singing to an infant, the effect was moving and gave us a sense of what was to come in whetting our sense of the unexpected.
Lewin asked Larry Schoenberg about what effects his father’s emigration had on Larry’s upbringing in the United States versus Austria, and the answer was surprising. While his parents generally wanted Larry and his siblings to feel part of the whole in their schooling and activities, Schoenberg refused to let Larry join the Boy Scouts. The organization was too similar for Schoenberg to Hitlerjugend, Hitler Youth. It’s enlightening to understand our culture through the lens of another.
Displaying Arnold Schoenberg’s range and disparity of work, McKay treated us to two of his “Brettl-Lieder” that showed a young man’s tonal, humorous and somewhat salacious side. First was “Galathea,” with lyrics by Frank Wedekind, where a young lover woos an object of desire in a most unusual way–wanting to kiss her everywhere but her lips–shades of “Pretty Woman!” This was followed by “Gigerlette,” with lyrics by Otto Julius Bierbaum, who gives us a semi-obliquely-told tale of entertaining someone at tea time with an activity others reserve for the evening. Lewin asked the panel their thoughts and arranger David Chase heard echoes of Cole Porter in “Gigerlette,” in the arch references and doubles entendres, while orchestrator Larry Hochman heard echoes of early Broadway, when musicals were more like operettas. He noted further that because Schoenberg was also an orchestrator, so many of the enhancements that he would usually add to a piece are already there. Hochman quipped that the nature of Broadway musicals changed a great deal when “Hair” moved Uptown.
Clurman then began to speak a bit about how Essential Voices USA had approached the work “A Survivor from Warsaw,” Schoenberg’s 1947 tribute to the survivors of the concentration camps. The final choral work, in twelve tone rows, is typically sung by men. Clurman taught the entire body of Essential Voices USA, men and women alike, the choral portion. They demonstrated the sound of men and women in simple octaves singing the final portion, so that we could contrast it later with the full performance. The combined voices were chilling, as I remembered the men, women and children who were killed for nothing more than being who they were born, more chilling in the echoes of that sentiment now being bandied about so lightly by privileged people who have never known anything other than privilege. Clurman told us about the papers in Schoenberg’s archives and how among his effects are two sets of Israeli folk songs–early pioneer songs recorded in the early days of establishing Israel as a country, in arrangements by Bernstein and Toch and others. Corinne Chochem, a Russian émigré dancer and choreographer, had suggested that Schoenberg create a tribute for the victims of the Holocaust, but their collaboration never came about. He moved forward, developing some different ideas in what became “A Survivor from Warsaw.” When he received a commission from the Koussevitsky Music Foundation for an orchestral piece, he fulfilled it with this monumental work.
“A Survivor from Warsaw” is only six minutes long, yet it’s a twelve tone masterpiece. Narrated in this performance by Joseph Beutel, it made its original debut under the baton of Kurt Frederick, who requested that the premiere happen with his Albuquerque Civic Symphony Orchestra. The original singers were farmers from more than 100 miles away in Estancia, with a young woman, a singer from the university, as the soloist. Schoenberg request that the orchestra create a full set of choral and orchestral charts for him, rather than paying the usual use fee. The debut occurred in a gymnasium, and when Kurt Frederick asked the audience whether they wanted to hear the short work again, they did. This piece is an eloquent description of post-traumatic stress disorder before people even knew what that was. The twelve tone style is uniquely perfect to convey the emotions, fear, and unrest of the situation that these benighted souls experienced, and Beutel’s delivery was perfection.
Clurman segued from this work, dramatic and deeply touching, sung in toto with men’s voices only, into the entire body of singers on Schoenberg’s “Dreimal tousand Jahre,” written in 1949, the year after Israel became a country. Taken together, the prayer at the end is for the dying going home to Israel, and the final welcome home after three thousand years, in one of Schoenberg’s final works in his catalog, gives a sense of completeness.
Then, Elisabeth Von Trapp took the stage to tell us the true story of what happened in those living hills. Some examples include her father, Werner, who was depicted as Kurt, and the fact that Rupert was the eldest give some idea of the poetic license taken in creating “The Sound of Music.” The heart of the matter was her description of how her family felt invested in being Austrians–how much that love for their country made them who they were, that gave an even larger sense of loss to their needing to leave the country that they loved, knowing they could not stop the predation that was to come. Her grandfather, Georg–the Baron Von Trapp—knew that, as difficult as it was to leave behind what they loved the most, there is always a choice between war and peace. With that, she gave us a rendition of “The Question of Love,” accompanied only by her playing on her Martin guitar. There is always a choice, and we have the answer to the question within us.
The finale of the evening was the US Premiere of David Chase’s “The Sound of Music Suite,” featuring homage to Trude Rittman, who was and a brilliant composer—the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” in “The King and I”—and arranger behind the scenes, with the extended vocal sequence of “Do-Re-Mi” numbering among her many collaborations. Chase’s musicality and sense of fun are evident in the entire piece, which is charming, dramatic and full of texture. A steeplechase of styles, this work seemed like a reward for the amazing work done on “Survivor,” and EVUSA reveled starting with a game of tag in “My Fav’rite Things” that began with fugue, then counterpoint, then unison. Then Beutel started “Edelweiss” and then other voices joined in, with almost the feel of a mellow calliope of texture, with a surprising segue to a Latin prayer that sets a contemplative mood for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which begins with the men, then goes to the women, then finally to the chorus rising in majestic drama. Then the joyful “Do-Re-Mi,” which gave McKay a “Queen of the Alps” moment or two, in an apparent tip of the hat to Mozart, another Austrian.
Climbing every mountain takes on so many dimensions when you express the joie de vivre and challenges of life in moments and memories like those shared. Be sure to attend the next “Composer Speaks” and make sure to reserve early … there was a capacity crowd in the intimate DiMenna–get more information at Essential Voices USA’s website: www.EssentialVoicesUSA.com