Monday, July 9, 2007

Brunch with the German Romantics

Casper David Friedrich: Cloister

Gothic monument by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Viktoria Park, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Caspar David Friedrich: The Cross on the Mountain

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

During Sunday brunch at Yorckschloesschen, Robert Morley walks by and joins me at my table. He also has his laptop, and goes to the online site of Bremer Sprachblog, which teaches German. Robert reads some highly complicated sentences aloud, commenting, "Listen to this. This is fabulous!"

Well, Robert, many people think the German language is ugly, guttural. That impression comes from all those World War II movies produced by Hollywood. But German is actually a beautiful language. I had the pleasure one evening of hearing the great German actress, Edith Clever, read portions of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) in the original language. It was extremely expressive and emotional.

I think that lyric German poetry, particularly of the Romantic poets, was in many ways a verbal form of the chiaroscuro found in the influential paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. I saw the Friedrich collection at Schloss Charlottenburg here in Berlin and instantly remembered passages from Goslar, Faust and Der Erlkönig. Poets such as Goethe, Rilke, Schiller, Heine, Brentano, Arnim, Eichendorff and E.T.A. Hoffmann (who, by the way, is buried 4 blocks from my apartment) often echoed Friedrich’s penchant for symbolism and double meanings. Darkness and light, a sense of the Gothic, the depiction of dreams and German mythology permeate their poetry. To me, the sheer descriptiveness, the actual sound of the language, has an innate musicality and tactile feel. No wonder that these qualities inspired great Lieder. I cannot imagine the artistic void that would exist if these poets had never lived.

One of the first German poems I ever learned comes instantly to mind, Ich grolle nicht by Heinrich Heine which inspired Robert Schumann to compose the perfect song. I include it below with an English translation:

Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ewig verlornes Lieb! Ich grolle nicht.
Wie du auch strahlst in Diamantenpracht,
Es fällt kein Strahl in deines Herzens Nacht.

Das weiß ich längst. Ich sah dich ja im Traum, Und sah die Nacht in deines Herzens Raum, Und sah die Schlange, die dir am Herzen frisst, Ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist.

I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking,
Love lost forever! I bear no grudge.
However you may shine in diamonds splendour,
no ray of light falls in the night of your heart.

I have long known this.

I saw you in my dream,
and saw the night in the space of your heart,
and saw the snake that eats at your heart,
I saw, my love, how very miserable you are.

So yes, Robert, it is a fabulous language.

© Alexander Frey, 2007

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Messiaen and Die Berliner Luft

Gorgeous weather this morning, and after a brisk walk, I bury myself in my work.

The scores on the desk to study for next season: Bernstein's Peter Pan and West Side Story, Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) and Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu), Mahler 5th symphony. The piano concertos to play-Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, Grieg A minor, Mozart A major K. 488. And that's only part of the repertoire.
3 CDs to prepare for and record. And some solo recitals.

I look out of my studio windows just above the treetops. The sky has suddenly become dark as rainclouds summon up yet another storm. I do like summer storms. The rain purifies the air, releasing the fragrances of the earth.

Unknown to many, the city of Berlin actually sits on top of a massive water table. The air in this metropolis is unusually clean and fresh for a large city. That is because the earth is constantly being saturated with water from underneath. The air is always being cleansed and purified. That is why there is the old song, "Berliner Luft" (Berlin Air).

Das ist die Berliner Luft Luft Luft,
so mit ihrem holden Duft Duft Duft,
wo nur selten was verpufft pufft pufft......

Whenever I arrive back in Berlin and step out of the airport terminal, I take a deep breath. The air is so different and fresh. Die Berliner Luft.

Craig Urquhart and I go to a concert last night of the Konzerthausorchester performed in Berlin's beautiful Schinkel-designed Konzerthaus, (see photo above). The orchestra is the reconstituted Berlin Symphony Orchestra (Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester). The program, of which some works are unfamiliar to me, was highly interesting. Stravinsky's Greeting Prelude, Berlioz Le Corsaire overture, Messiaen's Réveil des oiseaux, Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu. And those are just the works on the first half which was very long due to the moderator who gave long winded explanations between each piece of music.

I have loved Messiaen's music ever since I was a little boy entranced by the organ. But the Réveil des oiseaux, consisting mostly of the composer's transcriptions of birdsong, struck me the same way as his Canyons aux étoiles which I heard performed with orchestra featuring Messiaen's wife, the great pianist Yvonne Loriod, as soloist in Denver in 1998-superb music and ideas but way too repetitive and overly long. You are completely claimed by the opening 15 minutes only to be wandering for the next 30 or so through an endless chain of dominant seventh chords. Loriod's breathtaking performance and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's ravishing playing were magnificent, but the sheer length and repetition of the work were tiresome. The piece does convey a great musical picture of the work's inspiration, Utah's Brice Canyon, but one can say the same thing in fewer paragraphs to greater effect.

And yet almost the rest of Messiaen's music leaves me completely transfixed. His sound world is a wonderful place to be where the colors and hues are infinite.

The Zimmermann work hits us similarly due its length. Though not as cerebral as the Messiaen, Zimmermann quotes entire portions of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Berlioz' March to the Gallows from the Symphonie Fantastique whenever he can't seem to find a melody on his own. It cheapens what could have stood as a fine work.

We cut out to the new 5-star Hotel Roma for martinis before going down the street for a magnificent Italian dinner.

© Alexander Frey, 2007

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Summer of Goodbyes

This has been a summer of goodbyes-to the Begleys as they move to China, to Brian and Leigh who've gone back to the United States-and each one tears my heart apart. For me, goodbye is the hardest word to say in my entire vocabulary. I can’t bear to say it to anyone I love-to my broken relationships, to friends who move away, and in the most painful moment of my life, to my father as he died in my arms.

But strangely enough, this has also been a summer of hellos-to some of the dear people who were in my life earlier and have now reappeared, to new friends who have just arrived in my circle and to little Nella, Marco and Andrea Permutti’s new baby daughter who will surely inherit and radiate the warmth, kindness and love that so much inhabit her parents’ personalities.

But today I am grieving over the goodbyes. This morning I couldn’t get those Cole Porter lyrics out of my head:

Every time we say goodbye I die a little
Every time we say goodbye I wonder why a little
Why the gods above me who must be in the know
Think so little of me
They allow you to go.

Well, every time I say goodbye, I cry a little and die a little. But in some cases, like this summer, I have cried and died a lot.

© Alexander Frey, 2007


Monday, June 25, 2007

Monday, June 25, 2007

Back in Prague. I close the season conducting a performance at the Karlin where I have been conducting for three seasons now. Prague is a special place in the summer.

Sandra calls and asks what I think about a roundtable discussion in front of the public at the Hollywood in Vienna Festival, and would I participate. The discussion will be on the first day of the festival after my opening concert. I tell her that I think it's a great idea and I'll be glad to be a member of the panel. The festival is turning out to be a very large production, all the better.

Have started relearning some of Korngold's early piano works for the Vienna Festival as well as learning some of Alexander Scriabin Etudes new to my repertoire.

Craig Urquhart gave me the scores to some of his new orchestral works. By the way, the word "score" in a musical context refers to the actual printed music, also known in German and some other languages as "Partitur."

Craig composes in the most personal of voices. Rather than compose sturm und drang to represent the conflicts in the world today, Craig's music represents the peaceful, calm oasis which we all seek and hunger for. His work is a balm for the ills on our planet.

We've known each other for 20 years. Craig the man, who is one of my dear friends, feels things very deeply, thinks in probing, thoughtful and philosophical detail about the world and the artist's mission and place in it, and pursues and realizes his own goals as as composer-pianist to touch and improve the human condition.

Normally residing in New York, Craig is spending a few months living in Berlin. It's nice having him as a neighbor.

S calls and to tell me she liked my blog essay on repentance and redemption (see one of my blog entries below). She asks whether the writing is mine or from another source.

All the blog essays here are completely my own original musings. They represent my thoughts on culture, events, reflections of my experiences and anything else that comes to mind that I may choose to include here. If I quote any material from other sources, those sources will be fully acknowleged and cited.

© Alexander Frey, 2007


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Back in Berlin: late night musings.

First full day yesterday at home after arriving last night from flying half-way around the world. Although I was gone to Latin America to conduct for 8 days, I managed to stay on top of studying scores in my hotel room for current and upcoming performances, answering email on my laptop in the terracotta laced courtyard, while also catching up on my sleep after several other trips in the last few weeks to various countries.

Now back at home, I paid bills, practiced the piano. Dinner outdoors last night at some restaurant at Alexanderplatz where S and R and I dined on expensive salads, strangely over-priced for this part of the city. S asks me for advice about her boyfriend who seems to have a slight drinking problem. I say there is no such thing as a "slight" drinking problem.

I got home after dinner at around midnight. Jet lag rears its ugly head and I find myself still awake now at 3 in the morning. Before I write this blog sitting at my desk in my studio, I pull Ned Rorem's most recent diary, Lies, from the bookshelves. One of the notes I wrote in the margins tells me I read the book in April 2001. Several of the various pages of which I bent the corners over contain Rorem's views of the roles of composer and performer. I am also reminded of my feeling that this diary is the most humane of his to date.-touching, poignant, sad, as it deals with the illness and death of his long-time partner, organist-composer James Holmes. I've met Rorem several times and twice when he was with Holmes at national conventions of the American Guild of Organists. In 1996 at the AGO convention in New York City, the three of us had a long, friendly discussion about Rorem´s organ concerto as well as talking about Chicago and Hyde Park where both Rorem and I spent our respective childhoods. Jim, even though often overshadowed by Ned's celebrity, was clearly his equal intellectually and was as a performer and church musician what Ned is as a composer. The Muse works both ways. We had a enjoyable conversation. The two were very affable.

Such didn't seem to be the case when I saw them two years later at the AGO national convention in Denver. There they were standing near the exhibit hall of the convention hotel. I was glad to see them and walked over and said hello. They both seemed very remote, almost completely silent. I couldn't figure it out. I only found out three years later in April 2001 when I read Lies and discovered that Jim was dealing with symptoms and illness of cancer and advanced AIDS during that summer in Denver. He died 6 months later.

Ned lives in the same building as Mendy Wager. When I first started staying at Mendy's whenever I came to New York, he lived one floor above Ned. Mendy later sold his apartment and bought a new one on a lower floor. Now he lives below Ned. I actually found out about Jim's death from Mendy before I read Lies, though I didn't know the timing and therefore didn't connect the dots about Denver. I think I may have written Ned a note and slipped it in is mailbox while at Mendy's, though I am not 100% sure.

Speaking of which, Craig is living here in Berlin for a few months while handling all things Bernstein here in Europe. CuQu is one a composer who composes with the most personal of voices. We've been friends for 20 years. He wrote the booklet notes for my CD of the complete piano works of Leonard Bernstein and helped me a great deal during my research and preparation for my recording of Bernstein's Peter Pan. Craig has undertaken managing Ned in the past few years. Mendy Wager was one of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein's closest friends. Lenny died in Mendy's arms. I first met Lenny in 1985. I later became a protege and assistant conductor to John Mauceri starting in 1994. John was Bernstein's most important conducting protege. At that time, I was Music Director of the Berliner Ensemble. One of my predecessors in that position was Kurt Weill. In 2000-2001, I was John's assistant for performances of Weill's opera, The Eternal Road (Der Weg der Verheissung in German) which we toured in Germany, Israel and New York. Mendy's father, Meyer Weisgall, was the original producer of world premiere of The Eternal Road in 1936 in New York. I first met Mendy when he came to Germany to see our production. Mendy and John had been friends for almost 30 years. I could continue this line of thought, but I only want to show that this is but one of many interrelated circles of people and events that make up my life.

Helen Dewitt and I discussed her current book the theme of which is suicide. So far, none of the literary agents Helen has approached has shown interest in the idea. I say, "Helen, when I find a new fictional book to read, I like to be a good story. It can be about anything, something challenging. But I think the last subject that would peak my interest would be that of suicide." She responds by saying that maybe she should write a non-fiction book about the subject.

I mention to her my discussion with Lisa about the project, saying that her (Lisa's) well-thumbed extensive collection on the subject (Egad, what kind of friends do I have?) includes such books as William Styron's Darkness Visible, Kay Jamison's Night Falls Fast and Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon. Lisa also mentions her favorite German works on suicide ("my fave German works on the subject are..") Lang, as well as Bernhard's Correction, Peter Handke's A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.

I took Helen's book, The Last Samurai, with me on my trip. This amazing novel, which has been universally praised as masterpiece and path-breaking in it's style of story-telling and earned Helen the honor of being one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people, claims me from page 1. "And you want to follow this with a book about suicide?", I ask.


© Alexander Frey, 2007

Back home

Hello all,

I arrived last night from my trip to Latin America. I am still slightly agog about the long 10 1/2 hour flight during which the woman sitting next to me didn't get up to go to the bathroom at all during the whole time.

© Alexander Frey, 2007

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Thinking about Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Berlin, 29 May 2000

Anyone who ever heard Erich Wolfgang Korngold play the piano, whether live or on recordings, has always been quick to remark about the incredible orchestral quality of his playing. Hugo Friedhofer, one of Hollywood's most prolific film composers and orchestrators who had worked with Korngold on several movies, remarked, "He had a fantastic way of playing the piano with an orchestral style, so you could almost sense what he was hearing in the orchestra." Thankfully, Korngold did record a few of his own piano works, namely two of the Sieben Märchenbilder and one movement each from the first and second sonatas. These recordings provide us with a real view of not only the pianism of the composer, but also of the approach to piano performance typical of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was not unusual for pianists of that period to make certain additions in performance to a piece of music, along with seemingly infinite degrees of shading and color, to impart the illusion of an orchestral sound and texture. Much of this approach was influenced by both the pianism of Franz Liszt, who was famous for devising fantastic and previously unheard-of effects on the instrument, and the prevalence of orchestral and operatic transcriptions found on most piano recital programs at the turn of the century. On his recordings of his own music, Korngold’s playing often gives the illusion of an orchestral texture. In preparing for the performances heard on this compact disc, I transcribed some of the composer's own additions from his recordings to my scores. As Korngold once said, "I play two instruments, the piano and the orchestra--the orchestra is such a nice instrument on which to play."

The works on this recording show us a glimpse of the imagination of a miraculous child. Korngold's innate theatrical sensibilities, of imparting a story through music, were superior at a very young age. The Sieben Märchenbilder and Don Quixote show the same sophisticated tone-painting and highly developed sense of drama and timing that is evident in his later achievements as one of the most eminent composers of opera in Europe and film music in Hollywood. When asked about Korngold as a child prodigy, Hugo Friedhofer remarked, "I've seen music that he wrote at the age of ten or eleven that is fantastic, a set of piano things, Fairy-Tale Pictures..the invention, and the harmonic daring for them at the time!"

Korngold was always a man of the theater. Friedhofer, in recalling Korngold's eminence as a film composer, commented, "I know that Korngold had this sense of theater and of timing, and of stagecraft that began in his childhood. I recall many instances when Korngold would go to the producer and say, 'Look, can you give me a little more footage at the end…I feel that as the end of an act. I feel that there's a first act curtain there.' And he would always get his way. He was acting like a producer, actually, saying, 'I think that this would be more effective if it would occur after such and such happened.' And they listened to him, much to their advantage."

Friedhofer's observation confirms what any astute listener of Korngold's music has known all along: namely, that the composer did not distinguish between his works for the concert hall, opera house or film. All of his music was composed with the same depth of emotion, sense of drama and attention to form and detail. A Korngold film score can be performed in its entirety as a complete piece of music.

Such was my first experience encountering Korngold's works. I had the privilege of performing as piano soloist in his film score Between Two Worlds with John Mauceri conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Some months previously, I had been the soloist with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and had my first rehearsal in Los Angeles at the Warner Brothers Studios on the same soundstage on which Korngold had conducted his movie soundtracks. In 1997, I was one of the performers in the official Korngold centenary concert in the composer's native Vienna. The composer was a victim of anti-semitism in death as well as in life: During a rehearsal for the concert, I discovered at the end of my score that a copyist from the 1930’s had written "Erich Wolfgang Kornfeld", one of several deliberate attempts at defacing the composer's name often encountered in original editions of his music composed during his period in Vienna. With a thick pen, I promptly crossed out the offending slur, and wrote KORNGOLD!, my humble attempt at correcting an affront committed some 65 years earlier.

As I write these notes on the day of the 103rd anniversary of Korngold's birth, it is wonderful to see his music enjoying a well deserved, long overdue renaissance. His works are being heard in concerts all over the world. The United States Postal Service recently honored him by putting his portrait on a postage stamp. Yet in 1957, the year of his death, it seemed as if Korngold would lapse into obscurity. The atonalists were the composers of the day and they debunked him as being too tonal, melodic, old fashioned. Korngold never lost the inner child in himself. His fertile imagination and individual style, so strongly evident in childhood, remained so through his whole life; he did not give into the 'isms' of his time-serialism, atonalism. Korngold’s beautiful music, composed in his own voice, embraces, inspires and ennobles the human spirit. In the final analysis, this is all that really matters.

This essay originally appeared in the CD booklet for my recording, The Complete Piano Works of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, on the Koch International Classics label.

© Alexander Frey, 2007

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Redemption, Forgiveness and Another Chance

Repentance and Redemption are daily occurrences. And if they are not, something is wrong. Only the most narcissistic people can go through an entire day without examining their behavior.

Repentance and redemption can only be experienced when one is completely honest with themselves, as brutal as that may be. Redemption has to do with the restoration of the spirit. But not many people realize what repentance is. They may think it means feeling genuinely sorry for somethng, and that is part of it. But repentance actually means to change. The desire to change for the better and the effort to do so restores us back to spiritual, emotional and physical health.

Forgiveness also is an absolute intrinsic part of repentance and redemption. We have to forgive others and give them the chance to change. We also have to help them restore themselves (an us) back to health. And we have to learn how to forgive ourselves. And perhaps that is the hardest part of all.

Everyone makes mistakes, gets hurt, hurts others. The lessons a person learns can be tough, hard and painful. But one can be allowed to repent and be redeemed. And those who are kind enough to restore a person reminds one of what is most important: The main element in repentance and redemption is Love.

And the power of love is the thing that makes us fall down and weep and reach deep into ourselves to find that innocent and trusting child we all once were before the world took us by the arms and slung us around in the dirt and muck, causing that beautiful creature inside of us to seek cover and hide.

That child never dies, but it does get buried in fear, cynicism, dishonesty or anger. But we can all find that child inside of us again and slowly coax it out of hiding and back into the light.

It always seems to happen when we weep. Perhaps you have heard the expression, "reduced to tears." There is more in that saying than we know. What is reduced is that jaded, hard-crusted exterior we build around ourselves. What is exposed is not only who we are under the skin, but who we really should be.

When someone reaches out to you seeking forgiveness and redemption, they wish to find-together with you-a peaceful place. That is the moment in which they weep. That is the moment in which we love.

© Alexander Frey, 2007

Monday, June 4, 2007

First Blog

Helen DeWitt and some of her friends convinced me to have a blog site. Helen is the brilliant author of The Last Samurai. She is also my neighbor and great conversation companion.

We meet almost everyday in the well-known Yorckschloesschen, a legendary restaurant here in Berlin known for its artistic cliental of which we are two. The place is modeled after an establishment that one might find in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It has a wonderful outdoor beer garden where we all sit during warm weather. I took Garrison Keillor to Yorckschloesschen for lunch while were rehearsing in my apartment for some concerts we gave together. Since Helen has begun frequenting the restaurant, she has brought some of her writing colleagues in tow. I met them for the first time this past weekend. An interesting bunch, for sure.

My father was also an excellent writer, as seen in the legal briefs he authored as well as the letters he wrote. He read voraciously, often reading 3 books at the same time, their pages bent in the corners and containing copious handwritten notes in the margins, reflecting Dad’s musings on certain passages, or cross-referencing other books and thoughts.

My father was an ardent fan of Ernest Hemingway, having read everything that the mercurial author had written as well as every available Hemingway biography. Some months after Dad’s death, I visited the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana where Hemingway had lived for awhile. I took the wrought-iron elevator to the 5th floor where he resided in various rooms at different times. One can stay in any of those rooms as a hotel guest. I honored my father by wandering around the place and soaking up the atmosphere. I felt that he was there, too, enjoying the experience with me.

In Cuba, the average salary for a citizen is about 5 to 15 dollars per month. However, I am convinced that two of the wealthiest people in the country are the old lady and old man (not the Old Man and the Sea ) who are the dedicated pianists in the lobby of the Ambos Mundos. Each day, their tip glass is filled to the brim with dollars. Even though much of Havana is poor, its citizens do receive excellent and free health care. Many of their doctors go to the United States or Europe for their medical studies and residencies, and then return to Cuba to work in the hospitals. I’m told that the University in Havana is superb. Certainly the music is, performed live in every bar found on almost all the street corners, It’s a pity that the Bush administration doesn’t want Americans to travel to Cuba. It’s not actually illegal to visit the country. What is illegal is spending American money there. But those dollars are the joy of every pianist who performs during the days and mysterious nights in the lobby of the Ambos Mundos.