Monday's concert at the Brevard Music Festival was the third 2017 program to focus on the music of Kurt Weill (1900-50), the German-born American theatrical composer. After a fifteen-year career in Berlin, notably collaborating with Bertold Brecht on Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), Weill emigrated to the USA and adopted American citizenship enthusiastically. He had a fifteen-year American career on Broadway and in Hollywood; this second career will be explored in later concerts, including a performance of his American opera Street Scene. The concert here reviewed was performed in Ingram Auditorium of Brevard College and was devoted to works composed in Dessau and Berlin when young Weill was between 16 and 23.
The performances, by more than a dozen BMC faculty and two student vocalists, would by themselves have been exciting. But the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music is sponsoring a symposium July 10-12 in connection with the Brevard Music Festival. Musicologists and cultural historians with a special interest in Weill have gathered in Brevard. Their participation in a pre-concert lecture and an after-concert discussion session added insight regarding these seldom-heard early works.
Sopranos Sara Law and Adina Triolo collaborated with pianist Deloise Lima to present "Maikaterlied" (1917) and "Abendlied" (1918), Weill's settings of poems by Otto Julius Bierbaum. Triolo then sang Ofrahs Lieder, five love poems by Jehuda Halevi (1080-1115), a Spanish Jewish philosopher, again more than ably accompanied by Lima. These works were lost or unknown until the late 1980s. Ofrahs Lieder, written in 1916, was not given its first performance until 1987. Its five songs include the expected Sturm und Drang fare as well as a wistful song with a beautiful piano passage before the final upbeat song.
Law then returned to the stage to sing "Frauentanz" (Wife's Dance), Op. 10 from 1923, Weill's student days in Berlin, where he came under the tutelage of Ferrucio Busoni. (He had earlier studied with Engelbert Humperdinck.) This more ambitious suite of seven songs was accompanied by a quintet – almost a wind quintet but with a viola in place of an oboe. The players were Dilshad Posnock, flute, Eric Ginsberg, clarinet, Susan Barber, bassoon, Robert Rydel, horn, and Jennifer Snyder Kozoroz, viola. Weill uses the instruments in a variety of combinations, from all five in "Dieser Stern im Dunkeln" (This Star in the Dark) to a solo viola in "Eines Maienmorgens schon" (A beautiful May morning).
Throughout Weill's vocal works, the influence of Franz Schubert's lieder, Richard Wagner's romanticism, and even Frederic Chopin's piano gestures are apparent. In his pre-concert remarks, Prof. Stephen Hinton quoted from a letter written by Busoni that says, in effect, that the young Weill has a plethora of ideas and now needs to decide how to organize his music: where to stop and where to linger. The music showed that beginning to happen by 1923.
The second half of the concert began with an exceptional performance by Douglas Weeks of Weill's only extant work for solo piano, "Intermezzo," composed in Dessau about 1920 but not given its first performance until 1999. Online, there is a performance that had led me to believe this work was unimpressive, but Weeks showed how wrong I was. He found the structure, the inner voices, and the harmonic progression that give the work life. It was Wagnerian drama packaged in a Brahmsian musical idiom.
Jonathan Spitz and Weeks performed the 1919 Sonata for Cello and Piano, which struck me as characteristic of the problem Busoni had recognized the following year. Remember the story of the knight who leapt on his horse and rode off in all directions? That was this sonata, with motion like that of Weill's friend Paul Hindemith, complex romanticism like Arnold Schoenberg (whom Weill admired), and again the influence of Wagner ... and perhaps some Mozart. But the young man had not yet absorbed all these influences; he did not have his own voice. Then Busoni had gotten hold of him.
The String Quartet No.1, Op. 8, was premiered in 1923. In this week's concert, it was performed by a faculty quartet consisting of Corinne Stillwell and Marjorie Bagley, violins; Erika Eckert, viola, and Alistair MacRae, cello. The three movements are entitled Introduction (Sostenuto, con molto espressione); Scherzo (Vivace) and Choralphantasie (Andante non troppo) but are performed without pause. The opening movement is episodic, with a rich variety of gestures, but Weill is learning how to have these episodes work together. It is like a movie: there is a screenplay, and it is being followed. The scherzo is crazy, demented music. Theodore Adorno called it “inflation music” in reaction to the German hyperinflation that was going on in the early 1920s, where nothing had value. The tension is resolved with nothing less than a chorale in the short final movement. This is first-rate twentieth-century classical music, and it deserves a place in every string quartet's repertoire. Or at least, in the repertoire of those who can manage the technique!
An excellent summary of Weill's history was delivered in the pre-concert lecture by musicologist Prof. Stephen Hinton, of Stanford University. Kim H. Kowalke, of the Weill Foundation, also made a few remarks. For an after-concert discussion, musicologists Prof. Tim Carter, of UNC-Chapel Hill, and Prof. Naomi Graber, of the University of Georgia, joined these two. All four are specialists in the music of Weill. The discussion included audience questions and comments and ranged widely over aspects of Kurt Weill's music and career, adding greatly to the value of the evening.