On Sunday, May 19, at 2:30 p.m., the Museum of Jewish Heritage welcomes the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra for a powerful musical event — Banished Genius: Émigré Composers in America, inspired by the Museum’s new exhibit Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees, 1933-1941, which opens to the public on May 21.
The concert will present the work of Kurt Weill; Erich Korngold; Arnold Schoenberg; Darius Milhaud; and Erich Zeisl, five of the many acclaimed Jewish composers who were forced into exile by National Socialism and who found their way to America.
In advance of the concert, we caught up with the KCO’s very talented music director and conductor Gary Fagin.
MJH: How did you go about curating the concert? There is clearly a lot of material from which to choose.
GF: The list of émigré composers is long, and the number of excellent works by émigré composers is rich. I chose composers whose journeys from the Old World to the New World connect with the Museum's Against the Odds exhibit, and I selected works of theirs that would best reflect each composer's aesthetic and, that together, would make a moving and entertaining program.
MJH: How did the composers’ experiences as refugees shape their music?
GF: Some composers slipped on the clothes and cultural persona of their new country with ease. For example, Kurt Weill, in America, insisted on having his last name pronounced beginning with a W rather than, as in German, with a V. And his music took on a more popular, less continental/academic quality. Other composers, like Schoenberg, retained strong consistency with their pre-immigration musical sensibility.
MJH: How did American jazz work its way into Darius Milhaud’s compositions?
GF: Milhaud had been in America in the early 1920s, visited Harlem jazz clubs frequently, and enthusiastically infused his music thereafter with the new American style just then being called jazz. His music exhibits, as well as any composer, a wonderful mix of jazzy vibrancy and continental tradition.
MJH: How did the composers, in turn, help change the existing musical landscape here in the States?
GF: The émigré composers' influence on the American musical landscape cannot be overstated. Composers like Schoenberg, Zeisl, and Milhaud taught the next generation of great American composers; composers like Kurt Weill became Broadway stalwarts; and the film scores of composers like Erich Korngold defined that genre.
MJH: Why do you think Kurt Weill’s distinctly European style was so important in the development of American musical theater?
GF: In short, his melodic gift. Kurt Weill famously said, "I have learned to make my music speak directly to the audience, to find the most immediate, the most direct way to say what I want to say, and to say it as simply as possible. That’s why I think that, in the theater at least, melody is such an important element, because it speaks directly to the heart––and what good is music if it cannot move people?"
MJH: Why did so many exiled composers, like Erich Zeisl work as film composers?
GF: That's where the money was. In America, there was not, as in Europe, a tradition of supporting and honoring composers in the concert hall that would enable a composer to make a living strictly composing concert music. Thus, most composers had to teach and/or compose for film or theater.
MJH: Are there any distinctly Jewish musical themes worth noting?
GF: There is a beautiful example of what I would call Jewish sensibility in Erich Zeisl's Andante from his String Quartet No. 2. His daughter, Barbara Schoenberg Zeisl, wrote me that her father thought of this piece as: "a conversation (but a sad, almost gently reproaching conversation) between man and God."
MJH: What would you like audience members to take away from the concert?
GF: I’d like audience members to walk away with an appreciation of the journey and artistry of these composers whose lives were upended by circumstances beyond their control, but who survived and thrived with the help of their American experience.
Photo: The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Robert Simko.