MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Atlantic Crossing

New Century Chamber Orchestra with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

New Century Chamber Orchestra with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Here’s my new piece for Stanford Live’s remarkable performance series: this one involving the first-ever collaboration between Chanticleer and New Century Chamber Orchestra. I’ll post the entire original text here, since space limits prevented including all of it in the magazine. This special program embarks from Stanford tomorrow night.

A Provocative Entertainment: Setting Sail with Chanticleer and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

On 10 September, 1935, Kurt Weill disembarked from the SS Majestic and began exploring New York City. It had taken the ocean liner a mere six days to ferry Weill and his artistic partner Lotte Lenya – his ex-wife at the time, though the couple would remarry – across the Atlantic from Cherbourg. The towering skyline had already become a visual meme thanks to the century’s new mass medium of film: Lenya later recalled that its familiarity made it seem “really like coming home.” But what they encountered represented a new world in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.

Inside of a month, Weill found himself attending rehearsals for a pioneering work of musical theater titled Porgy and Bess, which prompted him to observe: “It’s a great country where music like that can be written – and played.” The German-born Weill may not have realized it at first, but he was already in the beginning stages of a reboot of his own identity as an artist. Instead of a European abroad, Weill would come to understand himself as an American writing for American audiences.

It’s the recurrent pattern of Old and New Worlds converging. But overlaid on this is a unique ambience deriving from the fact that it happened right in the dead center of what the poet W.H. Auden unforgettably called “a low dishonest decade.” That contact between Europeans and Americans in a period of ominous uncertainty, and the creative ferment it generated, could stand as an emblem for the programmatic concept Chanticleer and the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) have developed for their first-ever collaboration, “Atlantic Crossing.”

In place of the well-worn metaphor of a musical composition as a journey toward a predetermined destination, their idea is to draw attention to the cross-connections that happen en route. Travel itself becomes a metaphor for artistic evolution, as the thrill or nervous energy or bittersweet nostalgia involved in leaving one’s comfort zone and setting out on new ventures recharges the creative self. The categories of interchange making up the spine of “Atlantic Crossing” are the meet-ups between “high culture” and entertainment, modernity and timeless tradition, and, naturally, vocal and instrumental music making.

In practical terms, the junction of singing and playing instruments actually posed a significant challenge, since Chanticleer and the NCCO define themselves by their respective focuses on the former and the latter – a program simple-mindedly alternating between the two ensembles would be a program that ignores the entire point of collaboration.

Both Bay Area ensembles are acclaimed for their adventurous spirit, but their audiences tend not to overlap, so the prospect of joining together for the first time was intriguing when it began to percolate a few years ago. But however appealing such a partnership seemed in the abstract, “there was no existing repertoire that fit the bill for what we wanted to do to collaborate with orchestral forces,” explains Christine Bullin, Chanticleer’s president and general director.

The violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who also serves as music director of NCCO, adds that there’s a relatively restricted repertoire as it is for string orchestra on the one hand and for male chorus on the other. “So when you think about collaboration, you have to go the arrangement route. But we didn’t just want to come up with pieces that needed to be arranged. We wanted to develop a thematic evening as well.” According to Bullin, the creative challenge began to take shape as a search for an integrative theme that could “incorporate some of the things that each group already does and then allow for things we could do together.”

Why the theme of transatlantic crossings between Europe and America – and why in the 1930s? “The period between the two world wars is so fertile and so full of creativity,” says Bullin. While the worsening political situation in Nazi Germany forced Weill and many of the other artists featured on the program to flee Europe, these voyages were happening in both directions. American artists like George Gershwin encountered a heady atmosphere of experimentalism in Paris that fueled new ambitions, even as their European counterparts enthused over the energy and directness they found in the latest American music. The Atlantic crossing becomes fraught with ambivalence: it’s a vital means of escape but also offers the promise of a new beginning. Transatlantic journeys trace the age-old story of migration to more-favorable circumstances, but they at the same time they are the paradigm of a pilgrimage of discovery.

Naturally the focus on destinations has only been intensified by our modern patterns of travel: get there fast, by the most direct route, no frills along the way. In the 1930s the revolution in air travel already on the horizon was foreshadowed by the brief heyday of Germany’s Zeppelin company and its promotion of the dirigible alternative.

But the state-of-the-art ocean liners like the SS Normandie and the SS Isle de France, while speeding up the trip across the Atlantic, offered those in the top classes the leisurely pleasures of stylish travel, including much in the way of musical entertainment. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most potent recurring images in the modern mythology of the doomed Titanic involves the heroic last stand of its eight-piece orchestra.

The special aura attaching to this mode of travel, combined with its historical reality as the route by means of which thousands of musicians fled Hitler’s Germany, led to the decision to anchor “Atlantic Crossing” in a literal context. In planning the program, Chanticleer and NCCO decided they wanted to encourage the audience to imagine an actual ocean liner passage: the kind of voyage during which these musicians would have encountered one another or even participated in musical events.

“If you were on this ship, what you would have heard? It might have been the European music from that time, with the best of the European artists coming to America,” says Salerno-Sonnenberg. Some of these, like Béla Bartók, never had time to adjust to their surroundings in America; others, particularly Weill and Paul Hindemith, went on to create a significant body of work in their newly adopted homeland, taking pleasure in and emphasizing its cultural context.

Weill also serves as the focal midpoint of the program, in which the two ensembles join together for the first time for an all-stops-out arrangement of his iconic Three Penny Opera number, “Mack the Knife.” Weill is a powerful symbolic choice as well, since he represents the convergence of traditional European classical training and populist, vernacular directness – a reminder of the creative synergy that got shut off by the damaging dichotomy between “serious” music and entertainment that’s arguably a relic of the postwar era. As Weill unforgettably put it, “I have never acknowledged the difference between ‘serious’ and ‘light’ music. There is only good music and bad music.”

Consisting of just eight measures – some basic chords backing its eminently whistleable tune – “Mack the Knife” is a kind of blank slate that gets written over and layered into a ten-minute fantasy in the arrangement by Clarice Assad, a frequent collaborator with NCCO. Here and on her other arrangements for “Atlantic Crossing,” Assad hints at the ongoing role played by cross-connections among musical innovators in our own time.

Salerno-Sonnenberg calls Assad “probably the greatest arranger alive today. She’s the only one I can think of who could write these kinds of arrangements. Older composers would not have had the experiences available to her generation, and her background growing up in Brazil has given her a vast scope of knowledge of musical styles; all this variety of music lives inside of her.”

The art of arrangement as practiced by the Comedian Harmonists reveals another fascinating example of stylistic fusion from the 1930s. Launched by the young actor Harry Frommermann in the face of the profoundly depressed economy of Weimar-era Berlin, the original Comedian Harmonists numbered five singers along with the pianist Erwin Bootz. In another instance of how “Atlantic crossing” goes in both directions, they modeled themselves on the Revelers, an American group of close-harmony male vocalists. (A film biopic of the Comedian Harmonists was made in 1997 by the German director Joseph Vilsmaier, while Barry Manilow has written music for Harmony, a new musical about the group.)

The Comedian Harmonists anticipated the Beatles not only in the level of international popularity they achieved, but in the “feel-good” ethos of their deceptively effortless, extraordinarily sophisticated music making. In historical retrospect, their irresistible charm only underscores the insanity of what lay around the corner.

Because three of the sextet’s members were Jewish, the recently mandated race laws in Nazi Germany forced the Comedian Harmonists to break up at the height of their popularity, after they returned from their first and only American tour in 1934 (sailing on the symbolically appropriate SS Europa). Soon the Jewish members fled back across the Atlantic, but an attempt to form an American Comedian Harmonists met with only short-term success. (The baritone Roman Cycowski ended up serving for a period as cantor at Beth Israel Temple in San Francisco and was the last surviving member of the Comedian Harmonists.)

Reviewing Chanticleer’s program of material from the German sextet’s repertoire back in 2002, Octavio Roca aptly remarked that, however improbable the Comedian Harmonists seemed as a phenomenon, “there they were, just before German culture cut its own throat and visited unspeakable horror on the world, making sounds of joy for millions.”

But the story “Atlantic Crossing” seeks to recount involves the period before the madness, when European and American artists were listening to one another from new perspectives. Bullin points out that looking back at the accomplishments of the Comedian Harmonists helped define the overall “affect” for “Atlantic Crossing,” which aims to create a “provocative entertainment” as it prompts the audience to think about these varied kinds of cross-connections. The two ensembles might even be seen as themselves a kind of metaphor. Notes Salerno-Sonnenberg: “We wanted to imagine what happens when the two groups, which begin their journey on this ship as their own entities, finally meet up and start to jam together.”

On board ships like the Normandie traveled avant-garde pioneers and savvy, well-polished entertainers. Composers such as the Hungarian Míklós Rózsa brought their formidable classical training with them and ended up in Hollywood, where their soundtracks became part of the cultural landscape for millions of Americans. The ship itself provides an imaginary zone where, according to Salerno-Sonnenberg, “the entertainment sphere could meet up with the cutting-edge or avant-garde, where side says to the other: ‘This is what we do, now let’s do it together.’”

And waiting for them at the docks was the music being brewed by Americans themselves, from Gershwin’s jazz-symphonic-operatic fusions to the “loose, festive ensemble sound” of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, as Terry Teachout describes it in his marvelous new biography. Ellington, a “restless traveler,” himself had started leading his band on tours of Europe in 1933, and he was beginning to think of a very different Atlantic crossing that he wanted to evoke in a multi-movement suite – a composition expressing “the cruel journey across the sea and the despair of the landing, and then the days of slavery…” (Ellington).

Within a few years the luxuriously appointed ocean liners would be converted into war vessels. “We all know how the story ends,” says Bullin, but the horror to come is beyond the intended scope for “Atlantic Crossing.” Instead, “we’re going to get everyone to New York. Along the way we will create an intimate and entertaining atmosphere in which we hope the public will engage. We’re all in this lounge together.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: essay, programming innovation, vocal music

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