Keowee Chamber Music is noted for presenting concerts that are intellectually intriguing. Titled “Elegy,” their most recent program included poetry, prose and music in celebration of the survival of the human spirit despite the privations imposed on Europe by Nazi Germany and the violence imposed on Jews by the Holocaust. “Elegy” was presented November 9 at UNC-Asheville’s NC Center for Creative Retirement and repeated November 13 at Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium. This reviewer attended the Pack Library concert.
Opening the program was pianist Karen Sams with Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7. Her performance seemed a little mannered, but as the evening progressed I realized that the pianist was fighting a recalcitrant Steinway L that could use some serious attention from a technician. Sams was not hearing back from her instrument an accurate rendering of her intention. Consequently she overstressed elements that should be nuances.
Born in 1920 to a German-speaking Romanian Jewish family, Paul Antschel used a number of pen names, of which Paul Celan is the primary one. During the Holocaust, his parents died in a labor camp. The poet survived his time in a Bavarian labor camp, moved back to Romania, then to Vienna and finally to Paris. Celan professionally translated Russian and English literature into Romanian, also spoke Hebrew and French, but wrote his poetry in German. He became a French citizen and was a prominent figure in the literary world until his suicide in 1970. Mara Koslen, an Asheville poet and teacher, read an English translation of Celan’s celebrated poem “Todesfuge.” With its subject matter (concentration camp life) and fugue-like structure, it was a highly appropriate element to be included among musical selections, but its intricate structure and bullet-like phrases rendered it difficult upon first hearing. I appreciated the poem more upon studying it afterwards, both in translation and in German. The original language adds sonorities absent in English.
Vítězslava Kaprálová, daughter of Czech composer Václav Kaprál, had studied composition with Bohuslov Martinu and Charles Munch. She fled Czechoslovakia to exile in France, where she died in 1940 aged 25, reportedly of tuberculosis. Four art songs by the gifted young composer were sung by soprano Tena Greene accompanied by Sams. The influence of Martinu and reflections of operatic composer Leoš Janáček were apparent in the competent work of Kaprálová, and one wished she had lived long enough to develop her own individual style. The talent was there; the life was too brief.
Austrian concert pianist Alice Herz Sommer survived concentration camps and is still living in England aged 105. Sommer’s friend and musicologist Elizabeth Spragins, retired from Appalachian State University, professionally delivered an appreciation of her life and positive spirit. This delivery was divided into two sections, before and after the Sonata for Flute and Piano by Erwin Schulhoff.
Schulhoff was born in 1894 in Prague and died in 1942 in the Wülzburg concentration camp. Written in 1924, the flute sonata demonstrates Schulhoff in mid-career. The four-movement sonata is conventional in its overall structure, with an allegro, scherzo, aria and rondo. Schulhoff is familiar with jazz and provides Gershwin-like riffs for piano in the playful allegro. The aria is reminiscent of Max Reger’s style. I found the rondo quite uninteresting. Flautist Kate Steinbeck gave an excellent reading of the sonata. Pianist Karen Sams was a helpful collaborator despite the limitations of the Pack Library piano. (In the scherzo there were passages written for the top octave that sounded like someone beating on a tin can, albeit a tin can that was out of tune.)
Each war of the twentieth century limited the careers of promising musicians, poets and artists, and destroyed some of them. This program reminded us once again of what civilization loses due to the savagery of conflicts engendered by nationalism and racism.
*correction to Kaprálová in title noted on 11/18/08.