Another entertaining Shed Concert from the NZSO touching the Weimar era

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich
Shed Series

Hanns Eisler: Kleine Sinfonie, Op. 29
Simon Eastwood: Quanta
Franz Schreker: Kammersymphonie
Erik Satie, orch. Debussy: Gymnopedies Nos. 1 & 3
Kurt Weill: Suite from ‘Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny‘, arranged by Brückner-Rüggerberg

Shed 6, Queen’s Wharf

Friday 13 November, 7:30 pm

This was one of the few concerts, including several from the NZSO, which was not cancelled or changed (apart here, from the order of the pieces) by the effect of the Coronavirus.

Most concerts have come to be ’named’, in a way intended to reflect the character of the music, and this one was Kabarett, German for the obvious English word: the European cabaret scene of the 1920s and 30s, which was a focus not only for composers like Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, but also writers like Brecht, W H Auden and Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and artists Dix, Beckmann, Kirchner. Liebermann, Grosz.

But, not to be too pedantic, not all the music fell within the Weimar era. Schreker’s Chamber Symphony was composed in 1916; Satie’s Gymnopedies were written in the 1880s and Debussy orchestrated two of them in 1897.  The programme’s aim may well have been to suggest the nature of the music that led, with the collapse of Imperial Germany, to what came out of the Weimar Republic, and the mixed blessing of the era of the decadent Berlin scene on the 1920s. Anyway: there’s no reason to be too literal with the name ‘Kabarett’.

Hanns Eisler: Kleine Sinfonie
Hanns Eisler was a genuine, and notable composer of the 20s in Germany. He left Germany after the advent of Hitler and travelled widely in Europe and North America, finally settling in the United States in 1938. His Communist convictions eventually saw him expelled by the notorious McCarthy Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948 and he wound up in East Berlin, teaching at the East Berlin music conservatory, later named after him as the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler.

His Kleine Sinfonie was written in 1932, just before the Nazi take-over. The first movement, simply called Theme and Variations, is pensive and slow though it starts with spiky trumpets, then staccato flutes and clarinets, but is predominantly thoughtful though shifting abruptly at times from one instrumental group to another: it’s a series of about 20 variations on the theme, which does take root, lasting for almost half of the four movements.

The second movement is Allegro assai, with the word ‘sostenuto’ seeming like an after-thought. Over long periods it is incessant, often led by trumpet, though there were sudden mood shifts to flute, clarinet and saxophones. The third movement, after an abrupt stop and long pause, is called Invention and is quiet and thoughtful, again with isolated winds. It seemed to go nowhere with little variety, then stopped. The finale, Allegro, alternating brisk and slow passages, finishing after a repeat of the movement’s beginning, without ado.

Simon Eastwood’s Quanta had its first hearing in the Royal Academy of Music in London. It exhibited its era with its conspicuous – important – emphasis on percussion, here tuned percussion, xylophone and marimba, perhaps glockenspiel, and roto-toms. A minute or so in, the sounds began to create some sort of repetitiveness or sequence, with hints of a tune or that some more substantial event might be emerging. But none of the conventional shapes, melodic or rhythmic, were about to arrive because what seemed to drive its course seemed non-musical notions suggested by the title that presumably refers to Einstein’s theories. Nevertheless, setting aside musical characteristics of an earlier decade or two, it created an atmosphere and a flow of ideas that, with further hearings were moving in the direction of an interesting musical structure.

Schreker’s Kammersymphonie
Then came Franz Schreker’s Kammersymphonie (Chamber Symphony). Written in 1916, Kammersymphonie was not really ahead of its time since it presents as a heartfelt and almost traditional work, perhaps anticipating orchestral music’s wide use in film. It was the Weimar republic era in fact, that wrecked his musical career: the bad reception in Cologne of his opera Irrelohe in 1924; and Anti-Semitism and right-wing agitation also caused the failure or cancellation of others.

After ten minutes or so of music that flourished engagingly, without succumbing to distinctive melodies, a series of conventional themes emerged: a happy tune from woodwinds, for example, that became an engaging episode that seemed to keep recalling other music of the time.

So I was bemused to run into this description of Schreker’s music in Wikipedia: “…aesthetic plurality (a mixture of Romanticism, Naturalism, Symbolism, Impressionism, Expessionism and Neue Schlichkeit, timbral experimentation, strategies of extended tonality and conception of total music theatre into the narrative of  20th century music.”

But Schreker has become a fairly well-known opera composer with the popularity of such works as Der ferne Klang, Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgraber which were getting a lot of performances a few years ago. On trips through Germany in the 90s and 2000s I was disappointed to miss one or the other several times.

Satie’s Gymnopedies, via Debussy
After the interval the music became more conventional, or at least a bit more familiar. Debussy’s arrangement of Satie’s Gymnopedies, Nos 1 and 3. So popular are they that one hears them in various patterns and colours. It’s recorded that Debussy thought No 2 was not fit for orchestral treatment, a typical example of Debussyish finesse. Hardly any remnant of piano sound could be detected apart from a delightful harp at the beginning of No 3 (which Debussy placed first). They could easily have been by Debussy, as their French character was hard to conceal; again, another opportunity for disapproval of the programme by pedants. However, they offered a charming intermezzo in the midst of entirely Austro-German music.

Kurt Weill and Die Stadt Mahagonny
The concert ended with excerpts from Kurt Weill’s setting of Brecht’s libretto: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny – ‘Rise and fall of the city of Mahagónny’ (rather easily pronounced as ‘Mahógany’: which is in fact derived from the German language equivalent of the tree, Mahagoni). The arrangement was made in the 1950s by the conductor Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg, consisting of Allegro giusto, Moderato assai, Lento, Molto vivace, Largo. A score that includes a range of percussion and timpani, piano, alto and tenor saxophone, banjo and guitar, captured the spirit of Weill’s mocking, ironical tunes perhaps rather more opulently than does the opera score itself, of the late 1920s. That was to be expected from a conductor associated with the likes of Knappertsbusch, Furtwängler, Karajan, with his latter years in Hamburg. It was a good choice with which to end the concert, as it epitomised the essential character of the music of that time and place.

In all, it was yet another of Hamish McKeich’s successful, well-designed concerts that once more presented a range of music that exhibited aspects of ‘classical’ music that genuinely characterised the pre-WW2 era – particularly exhibiting its more listenable and entertaining aspects. Well populated (though naturally far short of an MFC audience), it lost not too many at the interval though still finding its way with well-arranged seating and sightlines.  I am still waiting for the revival of the then National Orchestra’s promenade concerts of the 1950s and 60s that completely populated the floor of the Town Hall with their mix of very popular classics and the more experimental.

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