Kurt Weill: The Composer and His Music
Oct. 15-17 at Belmont University
For information, call 460-6408
Kurt Weill is not a household name, even among whistlers of “Mack the Knife.” But to some people he’s a master who narrowed the gap between “serious” opera and Broadway. This year, cities all over the planet are commemorating his birth. One is Dessau, Germany, where Weill was born 100 years ago, the son of a cantor. Others include New York, Berlin, Londonand Nashville, where Belmont University presents Kurt Weill: The Composer and His Music.
Four distinguished musicians come to Belmont Oct. 15-17 to perform Weill’s music, discuss it, and conduct master classes. This foursome is led by former Metropolitan Opera soprano Regina Resnik, who, in a career spanning more than 50 years, sang with conductors including Bernstein, Solti, and Rostropovich. With her are soprano Ruth Golden, tenor Michael Philip Davis, and acclaimed “collaborative pianist” Kenneth Merrill. On Oct. 16, they will perform in a “Kurt Weill Centenary Concert,” featuring narrative commentary by Resnik.
Along with the music, Belmont is mounting an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, and lithographs based on Weill’s most famous work. The artist, Lithuanian-born Arbit Blatas (1908-1999), was Resnik’s husband from 1975 until his death.
The exhibit complements Kurt Weill’s musical gifts. The composer himself claimed he “didn’t give a damn about writing for posterity.” But playwright Maxwell Anderson, one of his collaborators, said in a funeral eulogy that “in time, Kurt will emerge as one of the very few who wrote great music.” What Weill wanted to do was “to completely integrate drama and music, spoken word, song, and movement” into a single music theater form that fused high seriousness with broad appeal. That is, he wanted what Wagner had wanted, but without the epic arrogance.
The composer worked with some prestigious collaborators, most famously Bertold Brecht. In 1928, Weill/Brecht took a satirical 18th-century opera about British lowlife and recast it in a modernist German mode. Audiences loved it; the rising Nazis hated it. After Weill’s death, Marc Blitzstein adapted the satire into contemporary American English: The 18th-Century British The Beggar’s Opera became Die Dreigroschenoper, which became The Threepenny Opera. Its best known fragment is the ballad about a shark with “pearly white” teeth.
As good as that opera is, there’s lots more. Besides Brecht, Weill collaborated with Ira Gershwin and Ogden Nash, among others. Steven Sondheim says he has found Weill “very useful” in his own work. In this centenary year, the reach and variety of Weill’s genius are being widely displayed. Belmont’s centenary concert will offer a sampler. The selections include the composer’s teenage debut and the 1931-32 dramatic works that so outraged the Nazis (forcing Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya to flee the country in 1933), concluding with selections from his “Broadway opera” Street Scene, done in 1947 with poet Langston Hughes.
If the concert is as good as it’s likely to be, it may help us understand why Leonard Slatkin and the New York Philharmonic, along with organizations from Adelaide to Osaka and Reykjavik, are making Weill music this year.
The happiest of marriages
Since 1990, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra has been bridging the gap between classical and popular music. Led by founding director Paul Gambill, the NCO has been offering programs that intermix “classical” selections with “popular” ones, as well as commissioning new work that authorizes such musical interbreeding. In the ensemble’s first decade, not all the marriages have worked, but some certainly havenone better than the NCO’s 10th-anniversary season premiere last weekend. Its concert Saturday at Downtown Presbyterian Church was the best I have heard, both in what was played and in how well it was played.
Paul Gambill has spoken often of the “learning curve” in NCO programming. The germinal concept remains what it was from the start: to program classical masterworks together with works not thought of as classical that nevertheless show similar excellence, in composition and in performance. Some of that programming has included arrangements of pop standards or established country hits; some of it has been newly commissioned work. Whatever form it takes, the music must be compatible with NCO’s corea string orchestra comprised of some two dozen violins-and-cousins. It’s not enough that guest artists be fine musicians and singers; what they do must be compatible with what a classical string orchestra can do.
Last weekend’s programming, for my ears, represented the high point of Gambill’s learning curve, and it showed, better than any program before, why NCO’s concept is worth emulating. The concert contained two major components: First, as part of Symposium 2000 at Vanderbiltthe current series of events jointly commemorating Albert Schweitzer and J.S. BachNCO played some secular orchestral selections from J.S. Bach. The two most impressive pieces featured soloists (an oboist, a flutist, and a harpsichordist) that Bach had integrated seamlessly into his orchestral sound. Second, NCO joined with two visiting Italian musicians, a mandolinist and a guitarist, in playing some late-19th-/early-20th-century Italian serenatas that fused classical discipline with quintessential Romantic expressiveness in ways that enriched both baroque chamber music and Venetian gondola entertainment.
We don’t think of Bach as an expressive lyrical melodist, but he was; and we don’t think of seductive gondola mandolinism as rigorously disciplined, but it was. The most achingly lovely moment of an enchanting evening came when the Italian mandolin was the solo voice in Lauretta’s celebrated aria from Puccini’s Gianni Schichi while the orchestra and guitar throbbed in accompaniment.
All the soloistsoboist Ann Knipschild, flutist Evelyn Loehrlein, harpsichordist Polly Brecht, mandolinist Carlo Aonzo, and guitarist Beppe Gambettamelded with the orchestra into one intricately flowing musical fabric. In the church’s acoustically responsive and well-filled space, NCO merited comparison with groups like the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York City. On the podium, Paul Gambill seemed more relaxed, secure, and confidentin himself and in the preparation of his musiciansthan ever before. His economical, understated gestures called no undue attention to himself, subtly reminding the musicians of what they already knew, so as to let them make the music and to let the music do its work. The outcome was classic, in the truest sense of that word.
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