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Friday, October 16, 2015

Concert Review: He Died For His Art

The Ullmann Project launches at Merkin Concert Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Doomed genius: Viktor Ullmann in 1924.
Image © The Arnold Schoenberg Center, Vienna.
Some composers are remembered more for the circumstances of their demise rather than the extraordinary achievements of their respective lives. Of those, Viktor Ullmann stands out. A songwriter, a piano composer and a creator of opera, he looked death in the face and laughed, creating the anti-Nazi opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis while interred in the Theresienstadt prison camp from 1941 to 1944. A fairy tale where Death takes a much-needed vacation in the face of total war, it was quickly banned. Ullmann was then killed at Auschwitz.

Ullmann's legacy was celebrated Thursday night at Merkin Concert Hall as The Ullmann Project, part one of a series assembled this season by Swedish-born soprano Dominique Hellsten focusing not only on his neglected songbook but on the music of contemporaries Alexander von Zemlinsky (his teacher), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (his artistic antithesis) and Petr Ebren, who survived Buchenwald and became a composer in his own right in the years following World War II.

The program opened with a set of lieder by Ullmann, written in the composer's early style. These pieces are redolent of the hot-house atmosphere of Vienna in the years before two world wars ripped apart the fabric of European society. These songs are dream-like in their use of shifting minor-key harmonies, diaphanous chords and complex interval leaps for the soprano. These challenges were met by Monica Niemi, who gamely took on each of these difficult songs and surmounted them one by one.

The first set of six Ullmann songs were followed by three Songs of Farewell from the pen of Korngold. The son of a leading Viennese music critic, Korngold was a child prodigy who wrote his masterpiece Die Tote Stadt at an early age, but faced the politicking and intrigue that defined his native city in the early 20th century. Korngold fled the Nazis and became eminent among the Hollywood film composers of the 1930s and '40s, but his music has never really gained the repertory foothold that it richly deserves. He wrote in a lush style that borders on decadent, ornamenting the vocal line with subtle figuration in the keyboard. Each of his narrator had their own voice, as if they were characters in one of his operas. These songs are marvelous creations and were sung with tenderness by Ms. Niemi.

The third composer featured was Zemlinsky, who is best remembered today for being Schoenberg's father-in-law and the paramour of Alma Schindler before she married Gustav Mahler. His music is rewarding too, expressed here in the taut Prelude and the following Letzte Bitte, based on the Expressionist poetry of Richard Dehmel. Six songs by Eben followed, settings of the philosophical poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke sung with gusto by baritone Will Robinson.

After the interval, baritone Jason Plourde announced a change: that he would sing Pierrots Tanzlied from the Korngold opera Die Tote Stadt before continuing with the work of Ullmann. This proved a wise choice, as Mr. Plourde threw himself into this dramatic aria from an opera that needs to be revived more often. The Ullmann songs were late works, a triptych from the Theresienstadt years. They are seemingly innocent ditties about fields and sowing that are actually  coded expressions of the Nazi atrocities being committed on a daily basis. The final song, Der Schweizer hides the German oppressors' identity behind a portrait of Swiss troops.

Ms. Hellsten then took the stage, offering six Waltz Songs by Zemlinsky. These  little trifles gleamed and glittered at the piano, but Ms. Hellsten continually brought the full and considerable weight of her dramatic soprano to their slight forms. Somewhat better was the evening's conclusion: the  Ullmann songs based on the poetry of Ricarda Huch. These have become a trademark, an inspiration and a signature of this artist throughout her international career. Though they were performed here with little subtlety and undue force, these are meritorious works and more than worthy of a further hearing.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.