Warm response for an innovative “Seen-and-Heard” Kristallnacht Concert at Wellington’s Public Trust Hall

The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand presents:
Kristallnacht Concert 2020

Music – Korngold, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Waxman, Weinberg, Toch, Rozsa, Bechet, Zorn

Excerpts from films with music  – “Robin Hood” 1938 (Korngold), “Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde” 1941 (Castelnuovo-Tedesco), “Rebecca” 1940, and “Bride of Frankenstein” 1935 (Waxman),  “The Cranes are Flying” 1957 (Weinberg), “None Shall Escape” 1944 (Toch), “Ben-Hur” 1959 (Rozsa), “It Must Schwing!” (The “Blue Note” Story) 2018 – various composers and artists

Musicians: Inbal Megiddo (‘cello), Jian Liu (piano), Jenny Wollerman (soprano), David Barnard (piano)
Martin Riseley (violin), Yury Gezentsvey (violin), The New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins violins, Gillian Ansell viola, Rolf Gjelsten ‘cello), Dave Wilson (clarinet), Callum Allardice (guitar), Phoebe Johnson (double-bass), Hikurangi Schaverein-Kaa (drums), Daniel Hayles (keyboards)

Concert presenter: Donald Maurice
Speaker, Holocaust Centre of NZ Chair: Deborah Hart

Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Monday, November 9th, 2020

I was surprised to find, upon arriving at the Public Trust Hall a good quarter-of-an-hour before the concert’s scheduled starting time, at least three-quarters of the seats already filled, and the queues still bringing people in – by the time I got my ticket sorted I found myself almost at the back of the hall, and was left wondering how I could possibly get from such a position a reasonably “filled-out” sound that would do justice to the performances.

I need not have worried, because the acoustic of the hall (a place where I’d never previously attended a concert) seemed by some alchemic means able to convey enough brightness, body and clarity of detail, even at a distance, to bring the musicmaking well-and truly to life. It was partly that the performers were such a stellar bunch whose “business” as performers was obviously the expert conveyance of the essence of whatever they were currently playing – but I simply had no qualms throughout the evening regarding any perceived lack of projection, character and personality on the part of any of the musicians. How lucky were both the concert organisers and we, the audience, to be able to enjoy such a “line-up” – and in such a venue!

We had been promised an out-of-the-ordinary kind of presentation this evening, along with the live music-making, one involving both the medium of soundtracked film, and the participation of a jazz combo paying its own tribute to a US record label called Blue Note, founded by two Jewish refugees in 1939, for which many of the great black jazz musicians recorded in the 1940s and 50s after being shunned by the more ‘establishment” record labels – we were able to enjoy a 2018 documentary film called “It must Schwing!” along with those clips from films whose soundtracks featured music written by those among the concert’s “composer roll-call”.

Concert host Donald Maurice began the proceedings by welcoming us to the hall, before introducing the chairperson of the Holocaust Centre of NZ, Deborah Hart. She spoke of the original Kristallnacht events and their commemoration by this concert, her words serving the purpose of reminding us afresh of the on-going nature of oppression fuelled by racial prejudice and cultural bigotry world-wide. She then thanked everybody, musicians and audience members, for their attendance and participation in this evening’s event.

Opening the presentation part of the concert was the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, firstly via an excerpt from the 1938 film “Robin Hood” for which he wrote the music (we were treated to the scene where Robin and his adversary, Guy of Gisborne, fight to the death, in tandem with the followers of both men similarly battling it to the end – the “separated” conflicts rather like contrasting individual instrumental lines in an orchestral work with tutti passages!) What a film! – still with the power to engage a good sixty years since my last viewing of it!

We then welcomed ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo and pianist Jian Liu to the platform to perform Korngold’s ‘Cello Concerto” a thirteen-minute long work itself written for a film “Deception”, and a piece that packs a lot of incident into its brief span. It was made the most of by Megiddo and Liu, who most surely characterised all of the piece’s contrasting episodes, the work’s “singing” quality being as well-rounded as the spikier, more agitated episodes were made sharp-edged and impactful. In a piece so condensed one felt almost cheated when the end came, so glorious here was the music and its making!

Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “classic horror” contribution to the 1941 film “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was then highlighted, followed by a performance by soprano Jenny Wollerman and pianist David Barnard of music in an entirely different vein, the same composer’s “Three Sephardic Songs”, whose text was Labino, an old form of Spanish. The poetic declamations of the first song betrayed its origins, with strongly-focused vocal lines and  ambient support from the piano, while the second song was gentler, expressed with a gentle, folkish walking-gait, and a beguilingly light touch. It was music that seemed to “entice” us into the countryside, the characterisations from singer and pianist creating a distinctively ambient world of expression.

Next we saw two contributions to film from German composer Franz Waxman, who famously wrote the music for the first full-length German film in the 1930s, “The Blue Angel”, but, on leaving Germany went to the US where he wrote many film scores, among them “Rebecca” (1940) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1945) – the excerpts featured a range of musical evocations, from the romantic to menacing (Rebecca) to downright blood-curdling (Frankenstein)! An entirely different matter was his “Carmen Fantasy” for solo violin, here played with jaw-dropping virtuosity (what can a listener do but desperately cling to cliches when one is stunned?) by violinist Martin Riseley, with pianist Jian Liu hair-raisingly hanging onto the violinist’s coat-tails throughout!

Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music began the second half of the concert, beginning with excerpts from the 1957 Soviet film “The Cranes are Flying”, set at the time of the Second World War, the clips showing sequences with hugely contrasting emotions of love and despair, each conveying a different kind of compelling intensity. We then heard, courtesy of the New Zealand String Quartet, two movements from Weinberg’s Fifth String Quartet Op.27, written in 1945 in the Soviet Union, to where Weinberg had escaped (and remained) after the Germans invaded Poland. First came the opening “Melodia”, music which not surprisingly seemed to express uncertaintly and discord, a ‘cello solo towards the end leading to a kind of concourse of quiet despair. The Scherzo movement was, by contrast, a wild dance integrating quixotic and fiercely desperate passages with fraught unison passages sorely seeking a kind of liberation – very exciting playing from the ensemble, with an “over-the-top” solo violin part fearlessly presented by the Quartet’s leader, Helene Pohl.

Like most of the composers mentioned, Austrian Jew Ernst Toch left Nazi-controlled Europe for the US during the 1930s. He found some work as a film composer, though he also maintained his academic career as a teacher of Philosophy and Music in California, and as a composer of concert music. The 1944 film “None shall Escape” was a projection of the post-war trials of individuals responsible for wartime atrocities, Toch’s opening music there suitably authoritative, but a later excerpt was warmer-sounding, and more reminiscent of Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. Pianist Jian Liu then played Toch’s Tanz und Spielstücke Op.40, the opening gentle and lyrical, the lines floating, and alternating as if “looking” for one another – the music gradually convinced itself it was allowed to “animate”, though it all remained very spare and unadorned, strange, gnomic music, the occasional impulse apart, appearing to “sit upon” its own character and not give anything away.

All of this was in stark contrast to the music of Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa, whose fame has up until recently rested on his many film scores, but whose concert music is now achieving more frequent hearings – particularly renowned are his scores for the films “Ben Hur” (1959) and “El Cid” (1961).  We saw the well-remembered opening of the legendary chariot race from “Ben Hur” (suitably Respighi-ish in effect) as well as the dramatically-underlined confrontation scene between Ben-Hur and his boyhood friend Messala, when politics put an end to their friendship!  After all of this, violinist Yuri Gezentsvey and pianist David Barnard played a transcription of Rózsa’s music for the “Love-Scene” from “El Cid”, its sweetness and romance beautifully held in check at first, then allowed to expand and unfold with the utmost feeling – a beautiful piece of concerted playing!

Being  somebody whose knowledge of jazz could be summed up on the back of a postage stamp, I somewhat nervously approached the final segment of the concert, a tribute to the German Jewish refugee pair of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who developed a jazz label called Blue Note Records, a company dedicated to furthering the careers of non-establishment (usually black) musicians, such as Sidney Bechet, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, and later signing up and  working with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Quincy Jones.  Wayne Shorter called the “Blue Note” pair “The Lion and the Wolf”, bent on realising their vision of creating a platform for musical talent to express itself without prejudice of any kind getting in the way.

A film made in 2018 “It must SCHWING”, reputedly the motto of Alfred Lion, directed by Eric Friedler, made clear, in the excerpts we were shown, the positive feelings of people who were associated with these “glory days” concerning the leadership of Lion and Wolff, the family atmosphere they created, and the fairness with which the musicians were treated. Following this the jazz musicians came together to perform a 1993 work by American composer John Zorn “Shtetl” (Ghetto Life) taken from an album entitled “Kristellnacht”, succeeding it with a tribute to clarinettist, saxophonist and composer Sidney Bechet, playing his 1939 work “Blues for Tommy”.

To my uncultured ears, the playing of the members of the jazz combo was above reproach, the lament-like opening of the music they began with coloured by the character of each of the instruments, the clarinet mournful, the piano philosophising, the double bass dark and resonant, the guitar anecdotal and chatty – the clarinet sounded like a cantor calling the prayers while the drummer at the back jazzed and spiked the rhythms.  Together, the instruments generated a processional quality that I related to Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (in particular, the “Frere Jacques” movement), before the clarinet suddenly skipped into “swing” which sounded not unike “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider”! At its swingin’ height the music suddenly dissolved into more and more abstracted realms, with the guitar playing a chiming kind of ostinato, supported by the drums “kicking into” the same repeated pattern, and the clarinet taking up a kind of valediction…….for some listeners I imagined it would have been a truly sentimental journey……

It was left to Deborah Hart to thank us once again for attending the concert, and thanking also the musicians who contributed their services, besides paying tribute to the owners of the Public Trust Building, Kay and Maurice Clark, for their generosity in making the venue available to the Holocaust Centre – appreciative words which were readily supported by all in attendance at this remarkable and heart-warming event.