Product of Terezin concentration camp survives as admirable, enjoyable children’s opera

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music

(on the first day of the Recovering Hidden Voices conference-festival)

Hans Krása: Brundibár (Bumblebee)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

21 August 2014, 7pm

The soloists for this production are members of the NZSM’s Young Musicians Programme with a chorus from Kelburn Normal School and a chamber orchestra of NZSM Classical performance students. It is conducted by NZSM Lecturer Dr Robert Legg and directed by NZSM alumni and artist teacher Frances Moore.

Hans Krása was a German Jewish composer who studied with Zemlinsky and also at the Berlin Conservatory and under Roussel in Paris.  He was born in 1899, and died in Auschwitz (it is assumed) in 1944.  The opera was completed in 1939, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, and it was performed many times in the Terezin ghetto (Theresienstadt).  This performance used a new English adaptation by Tony Kushner, which was often humorous with unexpectedly funny rhymes.

While the significance of the story about an evil organ-grinder (Brundibár) who prevents two children from getting milk for their sick mother can be seen in terms of Nazi persecution, on the surface it is a fairy-tale.

The production was enhanced by wonderful costumes and a colourful set.  The confined space on the platform at St. Andrew’s made it difficult, however, to see everything that was going on.  It would marvellous if the cast could stage it again in an auditorium with more room on its stage.  The large cast of mainly children plus a few singers from NZSM’s Young Musicians Programme and Classical Performance Programme (in one case) was complemented by an 11-piece student orchestra, plus at a couple of junctures a children’s orchestra of two violins, two descant and two tenor recorders.

The director, Frances Moore, also acted in the show.

Coincidentally, I had a couple of days before been alerted to the children’s opera with music by Gareth Farr that had been produced in 2009. Although I did not see that, it seems from the review I had just read that there were similarities. And there were occasions that reminded of Janáček’s wonderful opera The Cunning Little Vixen, recalling the characters of Cat, Dog and Sparrow.  There were also an ice-cream seller and other sellers, doctors, pickpockets, mayor (and Celia Wade-Brown was present) and mechanicals.

The villain was played in an accurate and bright, if not particularly threatening manner by Niklas Best.  Other important parts were performed by Canada Hickey, Bronwyn Wilde, Francesca Moore, Alexandra Gandionco and Beatrix Carino.  Notable too was Lucia McLaren-Smith as the milk seller, whose words were wonderfully clear.

The orchestra was very skilled, played accurately and made a good sound in both the bright, jolly music of much of the score, and also in the more solemn, thoughtful and sad passages.  However, given the light children’s voices, solos were in danger of being overwhelmed by the instruments if the singers were near them.  The same went for some of the spoken dialogue.

The show was full of variety and colour, not least when two girls dressed in dirndl skirts danced.  Throughout, the music was charming, as was the ensemble of violins and recorders.  The more experienced singers certainly stood out, not only from the excellence of the projection of their voices, but also in their greater use of facial expression.  Some of the chorus singing was in two or three parts, and the young performers acquitted themselves well here.  Intonation was usually very good, and it was obvious that a lot of work had gone on in rehearsals and at home, with the young players memorising their parts.  Words were very clear when the singing was in unison.

I was surprised, however, that the composer had much of the music set in the lower register of the children’s voices; where children excel is in the higher pitches, and the music would have been even more telling if these had been used more.

On the whole the singing was better from the middle of the performance onwards; the children were well warmed up by then, and also more confident.  Hopefully the second performance will have them in good form throughout.

The show was preceded by a specially made brief film titled Conversations with Vera, about Vera Egermayer, who survived Auschwitz and came to New Zealand, and had been a small child in Terezin when the performances took place there.  She is currently in Prague, and was interviewed actually in the theatre in Terezin where the first performances took place.  Aside from short clips from a film of an original performance in 1942, the remainder of the film had children either acting the part of Vera, or talking about her and their own reactions to her life and experiences.

Some of these were very good, but others spoke their lines too quickly to be clearly understood.  The last girl was excellent, and spoke clearly, with expression and sincerity.

All in all, this was a worthwhile and enjoyable children’s opera, and the performance was a tribute to all have worked on it.  The entire show, including film, was about an hour in duration, and so not too taxing for children in the audience.  Another performance will be held on Friday, 22 August 2014 at 6pm.


LUDWIG TREVIRANUS – at ease with the music

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

HAYDN – Piano Sonata in E-flat Major Hob.XV1/52
MENDELSSOHN – Variations sérieuses in D MInor Op.54
CHOPIN – Ballade No.4 in F Minor Op.52
GERSHWIN (arr.Wild) – 2 Etudes : Embraceable You / I Got Rhythm
SCHUMANN – Carnaval Op.9

Ludwig Treviranus (piano)
at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Thursday 21st August 2014

What a programme and what a performer! Ludwig Treviranus won all hearts and engaged all sensibilities besides at his Lower Hutt Little Theatre recital last week, with playing and presentations of real, flesh-and-blood character. In his hands the music sprang into life – he could well have echoed the Oscar Wilde character who  famously remarks, “…anybody can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression…..”

But there was more to the evening than Treviranus seating himself at the piano and pouring forth the music via the instrument – we were warmly welcomed by the pianist the beginning of it all, and made to feel as though we were giving to him, rather than the other way round, by our presence. He talked a little about each of the pieces, about what we would hear and how the music came into being. It all underlined our sense of the music being for him a living, meaningful entity, whose beauties he wanted to share.

We began with a piano sonata by Haydn, the very last of his sixty-two works in that genre. There’s still a tendency afoot to regard Haydn’s productivity as a composer with some condescension, to the effect that a lot of his music is that of a somewhat “watered-down Mozart”, that those vast numbers of symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas are the result as much, if not more, of industry as of artistry.

Well, I’ve yet to encounter a symphony, string quartet or piano sonata by Haydn that I thought unworthy of its composer – of course there are “apprentice” works in each genre, as there are in Mozart’s output, but each has its particular interest and insight into one or more aspects of the composer’s writing which matured and flourished throughout many years of composing, not merely in the works of his old age.

So it was the somewhat confusingly catalogue-numbered Hob.XVI/52 in E-flat which began the evening’s music. Treviranus’s response to Haydn’s writing was typically whole-hearted and orchestral in effect – big-boned in gesture, while finely-wrought in detail. But he demonstrated the ability to maintain the line, the music’s overall coherence, while keeping a certain spontaneity, a sense of surprise and delight at what he was playing – all very engaging.

I did wish at the time that he’d played the first-movement repeat – but philosophies vary regarding this whole issue, ranging from those held by the omnivorously-inclined to the positively austere. Of course, ignoring a repeat can be like leaving something unspoken in conversation, sometimes to great effect. But it’s an attitude I’d mostly care to disregard in favour of that enrichment of the discourse, that chemistry of ripening experience which a repetition can heighten between music, performer and listener.

We relished Treviranus’s traversal of the composer’s quixotic development with its wonderfully discursive harmonic explorations. The musical flow took on a tremulous tightrope-tightening aspect in places, and there was a wobble and rhythmic stumble just after the recapitulation’s entry – but, more importantly, the rest went with a flourish!

And we enjoyed the richly-toned Beethovenian slow movement, with its anticipatory echoes of the latter’s Les Adieux Sonata, and its expressive impulses of energy – the pianist’s tones took on a warmth and glowing aspect towards the end that temporarily and wondrously stilled time, pulse and movement.  Then, the finale’s brilliant repeated notes and scintillating runs whirled us through paroxysm of pleasure – an occasional suspicion of “rattling over the points” in one or two places was countered by an overall exuberance which suggested to us a joy of recreation, served up for our delight.

Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, next on the program, provided a perfect foil for the Haydn – at the outset, a dignified, baroque-like theme, followed by seventeen variations which energized the material in various ways, some of them remarkably Schumannesque in effect. Almost a compendium of early romantic pianism, the work brought forth both poetry and brilliance from Treviranus’s fingers, the pianist readily and wholeheartedly evoking the different character of each variation.

I particularly liked Treviranus’s playing of the parts of the work which seemed to take the composer “out of himself” – those sequences which had real glint and fire and sinew and muscle, including, of course, the Schumannesque Florestan-like bits.  These seemed refreshingly removed from the usual stereotypal image of Mendelssohn as not much more than a sentimental Victorian “Songs-without-words” composer. In fact the austere beauty of the work’s more thoughtful sequences played its own part in this revelatory “recasting” process.

Of the pre-eminence of Chopin in romantic piano music there can be no doubt, exemplified by the last of four Ballades written by the composer – each a dramatic narrative superbly sculptured, balancing heroic energy, romantic feeling and reflective poetry. The Fourth Ballade, in F Minor, is said to have been inspired by a Polish folk-tale of three brothers who, send to fight and destroy the enemy, win instead three brides – but I can testify to as much appreciation and enjoyment of the music over the years without knowledge of any such accompanying programme.

In any case, Treviaranus’s involvement with the music and the vividness of his characterization of the different episodes readily took me to a world of my own fashioning, with characters, ambiences and scenarios disconcertingly intermingling with the sounds. The playing seemed to me to convey all the right instincts for this music, the mood dreamy and tender at the work’s beginning, before darkening with resolve and quickening with energy as the narrative aspect took shape, but ever ready to entertain a remembrance of that opening tenderness at appropriate moments.

Not even a momentary derailing within a sequence impeded the music’s flow from the pianist, as the piece’s second half inexorably tightened its grip upon the music’s phrasing  and pulse, detailings and dynamics, and left us nicely breath-bated as we awaited the coda’s onslaught. A pianist friend who accompanied me to the concert admired the “coolness under pressure” of the young musician, the misdirected impulse and its retraction very adroitly making good part of the territory of live music-making.

After an interval we were treated (literally) to two delightful manifestations of the arranger’s art, in the form of a pair of  Etudes, virtuosic re-enactments of Gershwin’s songs contrived by the great American pianist Earl Wild. First came the flowing ease of “Embraceable You”, deliciously replete with arpeggiated counterpoints to the melody; and then followed “I Got Rhythm”, the music all angularity at the start, before galloping away with exuberant joy, returning for a kind of fox-trot, at which I’m sure people would have got up and danced to had there been available floor-space on which to strut their stuff.

The principal business of the evening’s music-making was, of course, Schumann’s Carnaval, a colourful collection of character-pieces depicting people both real and imagined, in the guise of revellers at a masked ball. Schumann had, in his earlier work, Papillons, produced a similar, if smaller-scale scenario, with particular reference to a novel Die Flegejahre by Jean-Paul Richter. By comparison, Carnaval is a grander design, incorporating not only character  sketches but a whole creative philosophy, embodied in the work’s triumphal finale, where Schumann’s artistic brothers and sisters, the Davidsbündler, put to flight the “Philistines”, the composer’s name for the musical reactionaries of the day.

To an extent all performances of great music represent work in progress, with artists continually and repeatedly striving to realise, unto themselves and their listeners, what these works have to offer. By turns forthright, quixotic, tender, philosophical, playful and enigmatic, this music requires of the performer a disconcerting range of abilities and sympathies for the composer’s purposes to be sufficiently activated.

Ludwig Treviranus had, by this stage of the evening, impressed with his vivid and engaging characterisations (Haydn), his concentration and strength of purpose (Mendelssohn), his poetic and dramatic instinct (Chopin) and his sense of fun and gaiety (Gershwin/Wild). All of these things were brought to bear in his playing of Carnaval, so that Schumann’s parade of colourful personalities was brought vividly to life.

Two things, each playing a part in prompting my “work-in-progress” remarks above – I did sense at the work’s beginning and end a whiff of caution in the playing in places where full-blooded exuberance (Schumann did nothing by halves!), even at the risk of inaccurate detail (a frisson of which briefly happened, to no deleterious effect whatever, during the work’s Preamble) needs to be the order of the moment. Unfortunately, in today’s chromium-plated world of piano technique, wrong notes are regarded as unforgivable – whereas a different generation of pianists knew well the value of their galvanising effect!

More importantly, I thought the decision to leave out most of the repeats throughout the episodes had a diminishing effect on the work as a whole – turning parts of it to my ears into a kind of “Visions fugitives”! Perhaps Treviranus thought that the repeats would make the piece too much of a long haul for the audience – being of the omnivorous rather than of the austere persuasion I simply wanted the music’s full measure – and my remarks regarding the enriching effect of being able to spend more time as a listener with a characterisation, an ambience, a mood, a state of being, apply here as strongly.

Enough of this carping! – the rest of my scribbled notes bear testimony to the life and colour of Treviranus’s performance, with far too many felicitous details for me to individually dwell upon. We were then prevailed upon by the pianist to applaud the piano (which we did) and afterwards help conclude the proceedings in singular fashion by singing along with the final encore “Show me the way to go home”. These Hutt Valley people certainly know how to do things properly.