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Interview & Review by Jerry Dubins

In Conversation with Noreen Green on the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and the Music of Eric Zeisl
By Jerry Dubins

It’s déjà vu all over again. Almost 10 years ago now, in an unrelated review, I happened to mention in passing how, growing up in San Francisco, I lived with my family in a house just a few doors down the block from the Zeisls—Egon, his wife Eleanor, and their daughter Renée. Egon spoke often of his brother Eric, who had settled in southern California and had taken a post teaching at Los Angeles City College, where, among his students, was the soon-to-be-famous film composer Jerry Goldsmith. Part of the Los Angeles/Hollywood milieu of composers and musicians who had fled to the U.S. from war-torn Europe, many of them Jewish—Korngold, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alexandre Tansman, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, Schoenberg, Heifetz, Piatigorsky, and others—Eric Zeisl was well regarded by his peers (he even composed a cello concerto for Piatigorsky, which the cellist never performed), but he had little success making inroads to the film industry, a course which would have gained him wider recognition.

Vienna-born Eric Zeisl (1905–1959) was a somewhat later product, along with Eisler (1898–1962), Kurt Weill (1900–1950), Ernst Krenek (1900–1991), and Berthold Goldschmidt (1903–1996), of that same Austro-German incubator of composers that gave us Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Franz Schreker, and Walter Braunfels, all born 20 to 30 years or so earlier. Yet Zeisl’s music remained richly tonal, steering clear of the more Modernistic tendencies of his contemporaries. Until recently, not a lot of Zeisl’s music has made it onto record, but out of the blue—or perhaps I should say, “green”—this chance opportunity came up to interview Noreen Green, Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, who has just released a recording of two major Zeisl works, his full-length ballet Jacob and Rachel and the Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song.

 

Now, I understand from a 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times that it was the University of Judaism that commissioned Zeisl in 1954 to create a biblically themed ballet, Jacob and Rachel, in collaboration with UJ’s dance and drama director, choreographer Benjamin Zemach. But Zeisl’s requirement for a full orchestra broke the budget, and the project went unproduced. The work had to wait over half a century before it was finally staged, at the Wadsworth Theatre in Westwood. I also understand from the same article that Zeisl’s grandson, E. Randol Schoenberg, was, and has been, instrumental in furthering the cause of his grandfather’s music. We’ll have an opportunity to hear from him later in this interview. But let’s start, not with your Zeisl recording, but at the beginning. Tell me about the history and background of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, how you first became involved with it, how and when you became its artistic director, and what the mission of the organization is.

NG: I’m the founding artistic director and conductor of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS). Previously, I’d been involved in Jewish music as music director of local synagogues, teaching music at Jewish schools and institutions.

I was searching for a topic for my doctoral treatise at the University of Southern California when I happened to attend a concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion featuring the Roger Wagner Chorale on the music of David Nowakowsky, who was considered the Jewish Bach of Odessa. I had an “aha” moment. Why hadn’t I heard about this composer or his music? I chose to write about him for my treatise, which led me to explore more unknown Jewish art and concert music.

Then, in 1993, as a student at the Aspen Music School, I presented a concert entirely of Jewish music. I spoke about each of the compositions, its relation to Jewish history and culture, and why I chose the pieces, why they resonated with me. After the concert, my teacher, Maestro Murry Sidlin, took me aside and said “Jewish music is your niche! It’s what you were meant to do. It’s what you must do!” And so, the seed of forming a Jewish orchestra was planted.

A few months later, with the help of some initial investors, supporters, and the constant encouragement of my husband, Dr. Ian Drew (President of the LAJS), we gave our first concert on April 10, 1994, appropriately entitled Debut!. Now, 25 years later, almost to the date (April 7, 2019), we will present our milestone Gala concert. In the blink of an eye the time has passed.

When I reminisce on the many extraordinary experiences that I’ve had, I feel truly blessed to have had such an impact on Jewish music, both here locally in LA and beyond! Jewish music is symbolic of the Jewish experience, and the Jewish experience is the human experience. Everyone can connect to the stories behind the music. Music can help break down barriers. A very important aspect of why I do this, in addition to playing the music, is to connect with our history, our heritage, and our culture, and to extend that connection to the players and our audience. Sharing this music with our community breaks down cultural barriers by building bridges of understanding through music from our tradition that has universal appeal.

Do you have a regular subscription concert season, and who are some of the Jewish composers and works you have featured on your programs? Have any of them been premiere performances? Has the LAJS’s budget permitted you to commission any new works?

NG: We’re the Wandering Jewish Orchestra! We don’t have a regular subscription series, but we do perform regularly in some of LA’s finest venues—the Walt Disney Concert Hall; the Soraya at CSUN, Northridge; and the Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University.

Because of my background in music education, I felt it was very important that the LAJS establish in-school programming for young students. With the help and generosity of the Jewish Community Foundation grants program, we created educational outreach programs starting in 1998. Our current education program, which we’ve been offering free of charge since 2002, is geared to fourth- and fifth-graders at local public schools and Jewish day schools; A Patchwork of Cultures: Exploring the Sephardic-Latino Connection.

Sephardic Jews and Latinos share a common ancestor, Spain. The language of Sephardic Jews, Ladino, is very close to Spanish. The children hear Sephardic folk and classical music in the classroom workshops, along with fun pieces like the Mexican Hat Dance. Then all the children come together to hear the LAJS play the music they studied in the workshops. The teachers love it when their students make the Ladino-Latino connection.

Over our 25 years, we’ve performed the works of well-known composers such as George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Ernest Bloch, Kurt Weil, and Aaron Copland, but more often we play music of lesser-known Jewish composers. Many of them were Holocaust survivors who came to Los Angeles and made great careers writing Hollywood film scores, but who also wrote serious symphonic music for the concert hall, such as Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Franz Waxman, Eric Zeisl, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. We’ve also presented the works of Russian Jewish composers that ordinarily wouldn’t get heard in Los Angeles, such as Jacobo Ficher, Gregor Fitelberg, Sholom Secunda, and Eduard Fertelmeister. And we’ve played music by great Israeli composers who are not well known here, such as Marc Lavry, Tzippi Fleischer, Moshe Rasiuk, Benjamin Yusupov, Noam Sheriff, and Shimon Cohen.

Over the years, some of our concert themes have been “From Klassics to Klezmer,” ”Cultural Collaborations,” “Celebrate Freedom,” “Our Shared History of Slavery,” “Cinema Judaica,” “Kolot Hanasheem: Voices of Women,” “Ahava: From Israel with Love,” “Remembrances: Reflections of the Holocaust,” and “Gersher L’chayim” (Bridge to Life). It’s a very long list.

We also collaborate with local organizations as a fundraising vehicle. Some of the organizations we have performed concerts for are KindredSPIRITS (each concert had a beneficiary), Save a Child’s Heart, Israel Cancer Research Institute, and Jewish Life Foundation, to name a few.

As part of our mission, the LAJS is dedicated to supporting living composers, so a large section of our repertoire consists of commissions and premieres. We’ve given the world premieres of more than 40 works, and the U.S. or West Coast premieres of many more. For example, did you know that Vladislaw Szpilman, the subject of the Academy Award-winning film The Pianist, was also a composer? He wrote his Piano Concertino while hiding out in the Warsaw Ghetto. If you didn’t know, you would think it was written by Gershwin! I was privileged to perform the world premiere soon after he passed away. I was able to obtain the manuscript from his son and create a performance copy. Mr. Szpilman knew we were premiering it before he died. We also performed it at the red-carpet debut of the film. It was one of many highlights of the LAJS’s tenure!

Our first recording on the Albany label, the oratorio Women of Valor, was written by long-time colleague and friend, Andrea Clearfield, who lives in Philadelphia. We met in 1993 at the Aspen School, and I commissioned her and gave the world premiere of Women of Valor at UCLA’s Royce Hall back in 2000. A long-time dream came true when we received funds to record it in 2016, with Albany releasing the CD in 2017.

If I could just interrupt you for a moment here, I’d like to note that your Women of Valor recording was reviewed in Fanfare 41:1. Anyway, please continue.

NG: Recently we commissioned Maria Newman (daughter of the great film composer Alfred Newman), an award-winning composer who lives in Malibu, to write The Baton of Hope for our 2018 Leonard Bernstein Centennial concert, Bernstein at 100/Israel at 70.

It has been a great pleasure also to work with the Lowell Milken Archive of Jewish American Music. It has supported the LAJS both financially and as a resource. The Archive is my “go-to” place when I’m looking for new repertoire.

It’s funny you should mention the Milken Archive. Before moving on to my next question, I just wanted to let you know that I had the distinct privilege of reviewing all 50 of the Milken Archive CDs, as they were released, and of contributing three major articles to the magazine on the project, as well as of working with Dr. Neil Levin, the project’s Artistic Director, at its Naxos launch in 2003. I’ll never forget that introductory article in 27:2, when Dr. Levin mailed me 80 single-spaced typewritten pages of documentation (!) which I had to condense and summarize for the article. I briefly contemplated suicide when I realized that his notes didn’t exist in a computer file.

Anyway, let’s get back to your new Zeisl CD. Obviously, from the LA Times article referenced earlier, Jacob and Rachel was performed before a live audience in 2009. But I assume this is its first ever recording. So, tell me how you came to the score and your decision to take it up.

NG: Our mission to perform works of the Jewish experience has led me to discover many hidden treasures. In 1994, right after I founded the LAJS, my friend E. Randol Schoenberg introduced me to the music of Eric Zeisl, his less well-known grandfather (Arnold Schoenberg being the more famous). I promptly programmed Zeisl’s To the Promised Land for our second concert and instantly became a Zeisl fan!

Another enormous influence was the late Professor Malcolm E. Cole. He was a musicologist at UCLA and was totally dedicated to the work of Zeisl. He co-authored the definitive Eric Zeisl biography and created an edition of the Jacob and Rachel ballet. His production notes were so fascinating that I printed them in the CD booklet.

How would you describe the music to a first-time listener?

NG: Eric Zeisl’s music is totally accessible to the listener. It’s tonal, melodic, and gorgeously orchestrated. His melodies bring the characters to life. When you read the production notes while listening to the CD, you can see the ballet take shape in your mind.

One thing that struck me while I was studying the score and conducting rehearsals was how the characters’ themes change, depending on the emotions they are feeling and the situations they are in. It’s very cinematic—even operatic—in that regard. Stylistically, it’s a Technicolor kaleidoscope of ancient dance tunes, Viennese melodies, 20th-century German Expressionist motives, and even some American jazz, all woven together by an expert hand. It’s solemn, happy, miserable, full of anxiety, violent, and erotic by turns, but it all ends with the reassuring promise that everything will work out for the lovers.

What about the Variations on a Slovak Folk Song, also on the disc?

NG: Well, it’s a much smaller, more personal statement. The Variations are based on a Slovakian folksong that reflects on life’s suffering. Taken in context of the day, Zeisl, through his music, contemplates why he is being treated so brutally by the cruel times he finds himself facing. Although the theme is a genuine Slovakian folk song, it might as well be a Jewish or Gypsy dirge in its universal simplicity. Zeisl explores every aspect of emotions through the variations; after a stunning, heartfelt violin solo, the Variations end with a dazzling display of virtuosity.

Zeisl originally used the theme and variations as the fourth movement of his First String Quartet (1930). In 1937, he expanded it for string orchestra, which is the version presented on our CD. The critic Michael Beckerman described the Variations as “revealing everything from the most delicate colors to wild bravura passages.”

Another hallmark of Zeisl’s style is the sudden unexpected changes in harmonic structure. They make your ears stand up and say, “What was that?” But then it all makes sense and brings a smile to your face.

This is a good place, I think, to loop Randol into this conversation. First, I get that you are Eric Zeisl’s grandson, but I looked you up on the internet machine, and our readers will be fascinated to know that you are the son of Zeisl’s daughter, Barbara, and Ronald Schoenberg, Arnold Schoenberg’s son. I also learned that you are an attorney based in Los Angeles, who specializes in legal cases related to the recovery of looted or stolen artworks, particularly those by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. You were portrayed by Ryan Reynolds in the 2015 film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of Maria Altman’s case against the Austrian government. Tell us about your efforts on behalf of your grandfather Eric Zeisl’s music.

ERS: I never met my grandfather, but as the oldest Zeisl grandchild, I felt an obligation to help people learn about his music. The first CD was a collection of his chamber music produced by Robina Young of Harmonia Mundi, whom I met while I was at Princeton, thanks to an introduction from the composer Milton Babbitt. That recording led to Michael Haas of Decca producing Zeisl’s Requiem Ebraico (1945), a setting of the 92nd Psalm that is probably the first major musical composition commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. Since then, there have been a number of performances and new recordings of Zeisl’s works by artists who have discovered his music and fallen in love with it. I set up a website, zeisl.com, with a catalog of works, and my mother and I, together with the publisher, Doblinger in Vienna, try to make sure that the scores are available to anyone wanting to perform them.

Were you involved, either directly or indirectly, with Noreen and the LAJS’s undertaking of their recording of Jacob and Rachel?

ERS: Noreen came to me with the idea. Normally, I don’t directly sponsor performances or recordings, but I’m a big fan of Noreen and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, which has been a major proponent not only of the works of my grandfather, but also of so many other deserving composers, many of whom would be much better known if not for the fact of their persecution by the Nazis. I knew how much Noreen loved Jacob and Rachel from when she performed it a decade ago, and I agreed that this recording would be a terrific way to commemorate the orchestra’s 25th anniversary.

Thank you, Randol, for the valuable work you do on behalf of Zeisl’s music and that of other Jewish composers. On that subject, getting back to Noreen now, what other works by Zeisl and/or other Jewish composers are you considering for future programming and possible recording? Actually, let me put this question a bit differently. Obviously, there are lots of Jewish composers whose music is widely known and well represented on record. Copland, Bernstein, Schoenberg, Korngold, and Gershwin come right off the top of my head. But I gather that your mission is to bring to the public’s attention the music of Jewish composers whose names and works have, as yet, made few inroads into the mainstream repertoire. Who might they be?

NG: That’s true. As our mission statement says, we perform orchestral works of well-known as well as not widely recognized Jewish composers, with the emphasis on the latter. I already mentioned composers I’ve programmed recently who are not exactly household names. There are many more, such as Alexander Boskovich and Walter Scharf, and wonderful living Jewish composers such as Sid Robinovitch, Paul Schoenfeld, Michael Isaacson, Simon Sargon, Raymond Goldstein, Meira Warshauer, Sharon Farber, Andrea Clearfield, and so many more!

I will continue to program works of Jewish composers from all over the world, and to commission works from artists who add to the enormous wealth of Jewish orchestral music. Currently, I’m looking at Lucas Richman’s Symphony: This Will be Our Reply. Lucas was inspired to write this symphony during Leonard Bernstein’s centenary year, 2018, as he reflected on the impassioned speech given by Bernstein following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Known as “An Artist’s Response to Violence,” the speech proclaimed Bernstein’s belief in the artist’s responsibility in the aftermath of tragedy. Bernstein proclaimed:

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony is part of a commissioning consortium, and our performance will be a collaboration between the LAJS and the Los Angeles Korean-American Musicians’ Association’s annual concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Harmony and Friendship, which is a musical effort to find common ground and the common threads of our humanity.

Where is the Jewish link, you ask? After exploring the contrasts of great beauty and horrific violence that pervade our modern era, the work ultimately resolves with an anthemic setting for SATB chorus of an original poem by Lucas, which frames the ancient Hebrew text Tikkun Olam (Heal the World), uplifting the essence of Bernstein’s profound message.

 

ZEISL Jacob and Rachel 1 . Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song 2 Noreen Green, cond; 1 Michael Sokol (nar, bar); 2 Mark Kashper (vn); Los Angeles Jewish S ALBANY 1756 (58:00)

The Biblical story of Jacob and Rachel is one of deception, bait-and-switch, wife-swapping, jealous rivalries, and sex, sex, and more sex. It’s like a whole season of Marriage Boot Camp rolled into a single chapter. Jacob meets and falls hopelessly in love with Rachel, so much so that he agrees to indenture himself for seven years to Laban, Rachel’s father, in exchange for being allowed to marry her. But Laban is a double-dealer. On the day of the nuptials, he substitutes his elder daughter, Leah, Rachel’s sister, under the wedding canopy. Jacob, unable to see the bride’s veiled face, ends up marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. Laban’s excuse is that according to custom, it’s the right of the older daughter to wed first. But conniving Laban makes Jacob a deal he can’t refuse. If he agrees to work for Laban for another seven years, he can have Rachel’s hand in marriage as well.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, Jacob doesn’t love Leah; he never did. But Rachel is unable to conceive and bear him children, and that’s a very bad thing in a culture that places the value of progeny above all else. Leah, on the other hand, has no problem in that department, and while Jacob may not love her as he loves Rachel, she nonetheless pops out four sons for him. Rachel isn’t happy with that situation at all, so she gives her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob to serve as a surrogate birth mother on her behalf. Bilhah bears Jacob two more sons, Dan and Naphtali. Well, now Leah isn’t having any of that. Two can play the same game, so she now gives her handmaid Zilpah to Jacob to serve as surrogate mother on her behalf. Seems rather ungracious of her, doesn’t it? She already gave birth to four sons of her own. Why should she begrudge her sister? Anyway, Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid, now bears Jacob yet another two sons, Gad and Asher. After all of this begetting, and Leah herself becoming pregnant again, lo and behold, Rachel miraculously becomes fertile and bears Jacob a son, Joseph, who, being the sole fruit of Rachel’s womb, will be Jacob’s favorite son.

All in all, Jacob fathered 12 sons, each of whom became the leader of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. I’m sure there’s more than one takeaway from this story, which begins in Genesis, Chapter 29, but here’s what I find curious. What are the odds of fathering 12 sons and only one daughter, Dinah? That must have been some very special sperm!

American danseur and choreographer Benjamin Zemach (1901–1997) recast this narrative in a libretto of his own making, choreographed it in 20 short tableaux or vignettes, and then collaborated with Eric Zeisl in 1954 to compose the music for the ballet Jacob and Rachel. An unusual feature, for a ballet, is that six numbers of Zemach’s libretto are spoken by a narrator over an orchestral accompaniment, and a seventh, “The Promise,” is sung in a manner that straddles the divide between recitativo stromentato and aria. All vocal sections are performed by baritone Michael Sokol.

As Noreen Green noted in our interview, “Zeisl’s music is richly tonal, steering clear of the more Modernistic tendencies of his contemporaries.” It does, however, employ all of the trappings of a good cinematic score: colorful orchestration produced by unusual and unexpected combinations of instruments; irregular, nervous rhythms, where called for, to heighten suspense and tension; applied dissonance, as appropriate, to intensify dramatic confrontation and strife; and a number of soothing, lyrical interludes intended to portray Rachel and Jacob’s attraction to her on their first meeting.

It should be noted, though, that Zemach’s chronicling of the Biblical narrative tells only the first half of the story. It ends with Laban’s duping Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, and Jacob’s agreeing to work seven more years for Rachel’s hand. The curtain now falls, as God intones “The Promise” to Jacob: “I will bless thee and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sands upon the seashore, and in they seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”

I suspect that seeing Zeisl’s Jacob and Rachel staged live with its choreography would make for an even more moving experience than simply listening to it on disc. There is some wonderful and very beautiful music here, and Noreen Green leads the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony in a memorable performance that captures all of the score’s wide-ranging emotional dimensions, from discord and conflict to loving tenderness and even awe in the presence of God.

If you didn’t know that the Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song was based on a Slovakian tune, and that the piece was composed by Eric Zeisl—originally in 1930 as the fourth movement of his First String Quartet, and subsequently expanded for string orchestra in 1937—you might think you were listening to something by Tchaikovsky, up to a point anyway. At least one of the variations, namely the fourth, finds itself in 20th-century territory—Hindemith perhaps—but for the most part, Zeisl’s Variations have their roots in late 19th-century Romantic soil. The Fifth Variation, for example, with its pizzicato accompaniment and lilting waltz-like melody (though it’s not technically a waltz), is again a bit reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, with a few “sour” harmonic twists thrown in to season the broth that are more lighthearted and amusing than sad or bitter. The violin solo in the final variation, beautifully played by concertmaster Mark Kashper, could come right out of a 19th-century Eastern European shtetl.

Well done all around, and a strong recommendation well deserved. Jerry Dubins

 

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