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Friday, August 16, 2019

Tales from the Vienna Would-Bes

DURING THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, Viennese operetta was always an escape. Spending a recent day with some of its highlights proved to be even more of a trip to a never-never land. Even as the genre struggled to hang on to its identity, musical fashions changed drastically, to a point that prompted the more contentious tastemakers to hoot it out of the halls. This year, the Bard Music Festival devoted itself to the life and work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, offering a transatlantic survey of works that slyly, and in spite of critical resistence, changed the nature of American music.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
The initial festival weekend (of two) opened with a survey of the kind of music that would have influenced the young Korngold, including some of the precocious composer’s very early works. He tasted fame early on, on the brink of his teens, and he was likened to Mozart because of the charm and speed of his output. And it didn’t hurt that his father was a noted, if not feared, music critic in early-1900s Vienna. Thus, after an opening-concert overview of the wide range of Korngold’s music throughout his career, the first Saturday program offered chamber and orchestral works from the composer’s early years alongside music by his teachers and friends.

One of the most valuable aspects of this festival is that contextualization, which is enhanced here by the talks given by the many scholars who collaborate on designing the summer’s programming.

The program for Sunday, Aug. 11, comprised three events that were bookended by programs of vocal works: a morning concert titled “Popular Music from Korngold’s Vienna” and the evening’s “Operetta’s America.” Between the two we were treated to “Before the Reich: Korngold and Fellow Conservatives,” and it’s worth noting that the featured composers seemed conservative only insofar as they were being reckoned against the atonality of the Second Viennese School.

A high point of that concert was the clarinet quintet by Josef Labor, written in 1900 by a Viennese native (and revered teacher) unashamedly Brahmsian in his compositional voice – and written for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms also wrote a handful of pieces. It’s a four-movement work, but tradition ends there, as the final two movements explore unusual structural territories. The third, marked “Quasi fantasia,” winds through sixteen changes of meter, in a large portion of which the piano speaks alone; the concluding “Tema con variazioni” opens with the violin’s statement of a theme that progresses through eight variations, each building upon the preceding one and showing a deft range of instrumental texture.
Pianist Danny Driver has become a justifiable favorite at Bard over the years; he was joined by clarinetist Nuna Antunes, violinist Aaron Boyd, violist Marka Gustavsson, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis.

Korngold was represented by two works: his arrangement of his own “Much Ado about Nothing” suite for violin and piano, and his Suite, Op. 23. “Much Ado” was written for a Max Reinhardt production of the play, and the composer turned it into a five-movement orchestral suite and the four-movement violin version here skillfully performed by Jesse Mills with pianist Rieko Aizawa. The Suite was written at the behest of one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who built a post-WWI repertory by commissioning some of the best contemporaneous composers.

Korngold’s Suite opens with a big solo-piano prelude, which you would have thought required ten fingers had you not seen Aizawa’s right hand used for nothing but page turns. The other players – violinists Mills and Boyd, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan – then joined for a fugal examination of the somber theme. The succeeding four movements explored a variety of styles, sounding like lieder, folksong, and even a Berlin ballad at times.

But the only vocal works on this program was a set of four songs by Othmar Schoeck, given stunningly beautiful performances by baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer, whom we would see again in a couple of hours.

The morning’s music was organized by performance space: theater, tavern, cabaret, and the like. Derek Scott, a most engaging compère,  provided witty, delightful introductions, and the first number, “Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume,” set the mood with its frothy, nostalgic flavor. Tenor William Ferguson has an impressive list of opera credits, but he was born to be on the musical-theater stage, so effortless and sincere are his voice and manner. The accompanying ensemble of piano, violin, and string bass gave a breezy, night-at-the-café sound to the numbers, especially the lively, idiomatic playing by violinist Kobi Malkin.

Although many of the composers represented have long since fallen away from popular memory, Korngold helped popularize the story of Johann Strauss, Jr., by arranging Strauss’s music in (and probably adding his own to) the score of the show “Walzer aus Wien” in 1930, which became “The Great Waltz” on Broadway and in Hollywood. The lovely love song “One Hour,” was dropped from the show, but ought to have continued currency – especially when sung as compellingly as we heard from soprano So Young Park.

Even as Arnold Schoenberg was shaking up Vienna’s musical world during the 20th century’s early years, he found time to make his own arrangements of Strauss – and to write cabaret songs like “Mahnung” (“Warning”), to a text by Gustav Hochstetter, which certainly sounded no odder than contemporaneous lied. Far more alarming was “The Abbot and the Countess,” a (what now seems) mildly saucy song by Béla Laszky that upset King Edward and drew a fine from the police commissioner.

Among the better-known numbers was Friedrich Holländer’s “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt,” written for Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel,” and sung by her ever after, although Park’s rendition showed an equally valid approach. Our fascinating journey finished with a couple of examples of American influence: Robert Katscher’s “When Day Is Done,” which got English lyrics by Buddy DeSylva after popular trumpeter Henry Busse began championing the piece, and “Beer Barrel Polka,” written in 1927 by Jaromir Vejvoda first as an instrumental, and then, with lyrics, as “Wasted Love.” It achieved its present form in 1939, and Park and Ferguson finished the program with a high-spirited, hand-clapping duet.

I would argue that the evening’s program picked up where this one left off, in that it expanded the song-by-song approach into a tour of the operetta arias of Korngold’s era. Who was represented, again, as an arranger (and fill-in composer), this time for Leo Fall, whose unfinished “Rosen aus Florida” Korngold completed. “Irina’s Lied,” sung by mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, is a lovely sigh of longing – “My happiness lies beyond the ocean” – over a lush, strings-rich orchestration, while “Wie ein keckes Liebeslied,” gives an amorous swain (baritone Duncan) a chance to impress his inamorata (soprano Park) with a boastful list of the jazzy instruments he’d like to play for her, giving the Orchestra Now’s banjo player (Sean Gallagher) plenty to do.

The influence of jazz was so pervasive in these numbers that Gallagher was rarely idle, and Micaela Baranello, in her pre-concert talk, termed the genre trans-Atlantic operetta. “Oh, Saxophon,” from Bruno Granischstaedten’s 1925 “Der Orlow,” also personified jazz instruments, with Duncan and Kamarei impersonating sax and banjo, while Emmerich Kálmán’s “Die Herzogin von Chicago” gave us the titular Duchess (a wealthy American ingenue) imagining the jazz band that plays in heaven in a lively back-and-forth between Park and tenor Ferguson. 

American millionaires with desirable daughters abounded in these silly stories: in the “Dollar Princess” by Leo Fall, the trio of Park, Kamarei, and Duncan imagined a ride in a luxurious automobile, riding so recklessly (with a posthorn call in the orchestra) that various woodland beasts are annihilated.

The dozen numbers of the first half were accompanied variously by the orchestra, conducted by Zachary Schwartzman (who also provided engaging commentary), or by pianist Switzer, giving contrasting aural experiences.

But it was orchestra to the fore for the second half, given over to the complete Prologue – the long opening scene – of Kálmán’s “Herzogin.” We’re at the Grille Americaine in Budapest, where Tihany, the host, welcomes us. Duncan was at his merriest and most obsequious, speaking his dialogue (as did all who spoke) in English, but with the Hollywood-German accent of Herman Bing.

The Charleston is all the rage here, and the orchestra isn’t bashful about showing it off – to the consternation of Prince Sandor Boris, tenor Frederick Ballentine at his most regal and, initially, most contentious. He prefers the old-fashioned music – the marches, the waltzes, not that “ghastly American music.” He shushes a foxtrot based on the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth in order to enjoy the Rakoczy March and a bit of the “Blue Danube” before singing (literally) the praises of Viennese music.

Enter Miss Mary Lloyd (Kamarei), here from Chicago, intending to impress her coterie by buying  the most expensive item she can find in Europe. But we’re not here to worry about plot. Romantic sparks fly between her and the Prince, but they’re tastes in music couldn’t be more opposed. Could there be a better premise for a dazzling variety of song? The principals were superb, and the Bard Festival Chorale not only sang but danced, with simple but very effective choreography.

It was a most delectable Viennese pastry, with schlagobers to spare, and the evanescence of it all was made the more poignant by the looming threat of Fascism, which soon would destroy lives and culture, sending Korngold and some of his luckier countrymen to that fairy-tale America. Korngold, of course, was lucky enough to land in its most fairy-tale town, and even though he won fame and financial success composing such film scores as “Anthony Adverse,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and “The Sea Wolf,” he always longed for his old Vienna – which, when he made a post-war return, had disappeared.

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