You have to admire Dr Joseph Toltz. Three years in the gestation, his Out of the Shadows Festival, which aims to explore and rehabilitate works by Jewish composers and writers who fled the Nazi terror for lives in Australia, New Zealand, and in some cases even farther afield, has grown from a seed to a sapling to an entire forest of musical and dramatic presentations. It’s a fascinating project, and one that fully deserves the support it has received from the Sydney Con and the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council. The opening gala gave just a taster of what’s in store with a first half devoted to five orchestral works by Jewish exiles followed by a complete staging of Brecht and Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins.
Of course, the chances of anyone rediscovering a masterpiece from the 1930s or 40s is a little remote, but all of the composers whose works were on display here – some found in archives, some needing a degree of reconstruction or orchestration – merit attention, and the combined Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows and the Sydney Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra under the sure-footed baton of SSO Fellows Programme AD Roger Benedict gave them an ideal opportunity to argue their cases.
The Fantasie für Orchester of Adolf Fleischner (who wrote in his Finnish exile as HA Peter) was first up, a warm, yet wistful work with echoes of Ralph Vaughan Williams, a touch of the blues and a twist of Bartók. Attractive, pastoral music with a vigorous brassy central passage, it was well worth hearing, though it might have benefited from an editor. Similarly impressive was conductor and composer Georg Tintner’s Trauermusik, a grandly sombre dirge with a central fugue and a late lyrical blossoming overwhelmed by grief of Brucknerian proportions – singularly appropriate for a maestro noted for his dedication to the mighty Austrian symphonist.
Werner Baer’s The Test of Strength was a ballet score written for Sydney-based Gertud Bodenweiser’s company in 1953. Purporting to show a lion-tamer who succumbs to a beautiful woman who in turn is overcome by fear of a tiny mouse, it felt mostly pastiche with carnival waltzes, cinematic fanfares, a neatly executed comedy duet for bassoon and tuba, and what sounded like a cod National Anthem. Despite possessing a certain charm, its episodic nature and the lack of any clear synopsis or visuals meant it remained elusive. The same went for Marcel Lorber’s Schuld-Kain (The fault of Cain), another Bodenweiser ballet score. More skilfully scored than the Baer, and loaded with interest and incident, a lack of a clear presented storyline left it somewhat up in the air.
The best was saved for last, however. Simon Parmet was born in Helsinki and studied in St Petersburg with Glazunov. A regular visitor to Germany, he would later go into exile in the US before finally returning to Finland. His music for Ansky’s play The Dybbuk – the same play that inspired Bernstein’s later ballet – was composed in 1934 and included a Dance of the Poor. Re-orchestrated from the piano score by Ian Whitney this is a very pretty piece indeed, full of ear-tickling Sephardic harmonics.
Taking his cue from the classic 1937 Polish film (a cinematic masterpiece available in full on YouTube), dancer-choreographer Benjamin Hancock appeared in bridal white complete with plaits and performed an aching solo that caught perfectly the incipient danger of the bride who invites her deceased bridegroom to return for their wedding only to find herself the subject of demonic possession. Wheeling and lurching, in control and out of it, Hancock’s otherworldly presence compelled attention before expiring on the final downbeat.
The Seven Deadly Sins © David Goldman
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘sung ballet’ The Seven Deadly Sins was the perfect after course for an evening resonating with tales of hardship, trauma and dislocation. An amoral story of a likely immigrant family who push their daughter Anna – whose two halves are represented simultaneously by a singer and a dancer – out into the world to earn money, most of which it is hoped she will send back home, it’s a tough-as-nails tale of exploitation, desperation and the all too cruel way of the world.
Musically, everything was first rate. Benedict paced it all perfectly, and the players gave it a beautifully detailed outing with fine solos on banjo, brass and woodwind. Vocally, Jessica Aszodi made a secure and detailed Anna I, while the grotesque family quartet of Michael Butchard, Blake Fischer, Simon Lobelson and Wade Kernot (dragged up like something out of Monty Python as the stentorian mother) were a class act, especially in their close harmony a cappella numbers.
The only serious problem – and for people unfamiliar with the piece, a potentially fatal one – was the balance. With no pit for the orchestra the singers were generally overwhelmed – through no fault of Benedict’s, I might add – and despite some decent diction and the text sung in English translation, without the aid of surtitles or microphones much of it remained incomprehensible.
Chrissy Tintner’s production, while well conceived if the text had been there to help us, was rendered somewhat uncertain, while Sara Black’s fine choreography was just a little too abstract to tell its tales clearly enough without the aid of a plotline. The use of side projections might have worked for those in the front of the hall, but were invisible to those of us at the back, thus the pauses between movements became simply hold ups. Fortunately, the central relationship between the two Annas remained clear, and thanks to a sympathetic performance from Marlo Benjamin as the sensitive Anna II, the breakdown in the split personality was rendered sufficiently poignant.
A fascinating evening, then, and if the dramatic work would have benefitted from a more conventional stage setting than Verbrugghen Hall could offer, it was still a welcome opportunity to hear one of Weill’s most immediately attractive scores in such a well-finessed performance.
Out of the Shadows continues until August 12 in venues across Sydney.