Like many string players I grew up loving the Heifetz recording of the Korngold Violin Concerto, and a general obsession with Heifetz led to an interest in the composers he championed, in particular composers like Korngold, Rózsa, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and others who lived in Los Angeles during the mid-20th century. This inspired a project last April to revive the Castelnuovo-Tedesco cello concerto for its first performance since its 1930s debut performances with Piatigorsky and Toscanini. The recording of our ‘reboot’ will be released this June on Naxos, but reading and studying about Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s relationships with the film studios, Heifetz, Piatigorsky, and the other musicians and composers living in LA gave me a new appreciation for the incredible depth of musical talent that existed in Los Angeles in the middle of the 20th century.
Los Angeles had been a fairly barren cultural city, with little in the way of concert, theater or operatic culture when rising tensions in Europe brought a sudden influx of refugees that created, within a few square miles, perhaps one of the greatest communities of artistic talent ever assembled. During the mid-20th century Los Angeles was home to composers including Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Korngold, Rózsa, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Weill and Gershwin, performers such as Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose, Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubinstein, Otto Klemperer and Lotte Lehmann, and literary and cultural figures like Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Dylan Thomas, Bertrand Russell, W H Auden, Aldous Huxley, Franz Werfel, and Alma Mahler. It was an almost unimaginable assembly of creative talent, banding together in a small community, relatively unnoticed by the larger world. I wanted to assemble a recital that would provide a sampling of the creative talent present in that community, and also hopefully expand the bounds of the repertoire for cello and piano. The resulting program contains works from 12 composers, some famous, some less well known, all immigrants to Los Angeles from Europe. Fortune made them neighbors in a place that could scarcely have been more different from the lands that they had left, but they clung together, attempting to recreate the cultural world they had lost, and in the process altered the course of American cultural life.
The recitals, presented January 6th at Bruno Walter Auditorium in Lincoln Center at 2:30 pm (see event details here) and April 15th for the Los Angeles Violoncello Society at the Crossroads School in Los Angeles (details here) with my wife, pianist Evelyn Chen, will include both original music for cello and transcriptions from vocal, violin and piano repertoire. With the goal of avoiding already well known works such as the Rachmaninoff Sonata or Stravinsky’s Suite Itallienne, we focused on finding little played pieces that we loved and hoped others might eventually be interested to learn and play.
Leopold Godowsky‘s (1870-1938, LA 1916-19) Alt Wien (Old Vienna), in the violin transcription by his friend Heifetz, opens the program and perhaps sets the mood of these European exiles, living in a foreign land and remembering what was…Though Godowsky is considered among the greatest technical pianists in history, among string players he is perhaps most famous for his quip at Jascha Heifetz’s Carnegie debut, when Mischa Elman asked “It’s awfully hot in here, isn’t it?” and Godowsky replied “Not for pianists!”
Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s (1873-1943, LA 1942-43) came to America fleeing the Russian revolution, and to Los Angeles on doctor’s advice to seek warmer weather. His Serenade Op.3, No.5 was written in 1893, however Rachmaninoff extensively revised the Serenade in 1940, and this is the version that we transcribed for piano and cello. Besides lending itself nicely to transcription, I was struck by how the revision reveals the hand of both the youthful Russian, and the old exile.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971, LA 1940-69) was driven from Europe by the outbreak of World War II and settled in Hollywood, where his house became a meeting ground for European intellectuals, including WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, Charlie Chaplin and George Gershwin (though of course, never arch-rival Schoenberg). Stravinsky’s arrangement of the Suite Itallienne is already well known, so I’ve adapted Dushkin’s authorized violin arrangement of the Berceuse from Firebird.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951, LA 1934-51) was driven from Berlin by the rise of Hitler, and found teaching posts at USC and UCLA. Like Stravinsky, Schoenberg’s house became a gathering spot for Europeans in exile and among the guests at his Sunday teas were Otto Klemperer, Gershwin, Toch, Achron, Gruenberg, Varese, Harpo Marx and Peter Lorre. Saget mir auf welchem Pfade (“Tell me which path”) is taken from the song cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten composed in a freely atonal style which he said felt that for the first time to be his true compositional voice. I imagine that the poem, in which the narrator ponders which path to take, anticipates both the choices Schoenberg faced in composing and later, in life, when he abandoned his European homeland for America.
Joseph Achron (1886-1943, LA 1934-43) was a Lithuanian known as much for his violin playing as his compositions, and particularly his embrace of Jewish music and idioms at a time when most Jews were more concerned with integration. Heifetz quickly made Achron’s Hebrew Melody known around the world and Achron settled in Los Angeles in 1934 where he composed for films, continued his violin career and premiered his Violin Concerto No. 3 (commissioned by Heifetz) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The piece we chose, originally for violin, titled Stimmungen (“moods”) focuses on creating a mood with a single melody, varying only the harmony and accompaniment.
Louis Gruenberg (1884- 1964, LA 1937-64) emigrated from Russia with his family when he was just a few months old. He gained rapid, but fleeting, fame with the success of his 1933 opera The Emperor Jones, and moved to Los Angeles in 1937, where he became an active film composer. He had several Academy award nominations and at least 39 film score credits. Heifetz commissioned a violin concerto, which he debuted and recorded in 1944, marking a second high point in Gruenberg’s career as a composer of concert music. We will play the third of his three 1924 Jazzettes for violin and piano, which show his fascination with jazz and ragtime influences.
Ernst Toch (1887-1964, LA 1936-50, 58-64) was a Viennese Jew forced from his professorship in Mannheim with Hitler’s rise. Toch found refuge in America, where he scored music for films in relative obscurity (his music for the chase scene in Heidi is perhaps his best known score) and taught both music and philosophy at USC. The three Impromptus for solo cello performed in the recital, were written in the last year of Toch’s life as a 60th birthday gift for fellow Angeleno Gregor Piatigorsky.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968, LA 1940-68) was born in Florence and had already made a name as a classical composer, with commissions from Segovia, Heifetz and Piatigorsky, when Mussolini’s racial laws drove him to emigrate to the US. Sponsored by Heifetz and Toscanini, Mario found work at MGM and over the remainder of his career, scored over 200 movies and taught numerous composition students, including Andre Previn, Henry Mancini and John Williams, while still continuing to compose concert works. Mario wrote I Notambulli for Gaspar Cassado in the late 1920s, and describes it as “a set of extremely free and colorful variations” describing figures that passed him during his nightly strolls in Florence.
Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995, LA 1940-95) Born in Hungary and trained in Leipzig, Rózsa sought refuge in Hollywood during World War II and remained there for the rest of his life. He is perhaps best known for scores such as Spellbound and Ben Hur, but he continued his ‘double life’ as a classical composer as well, with notable concerto commissions from Heifetz, Piatigorsky and Starker. Rózsa wrote the Toccata capricciosa for solo cello in 1979, dedicated to the memory of Piatigorsky. He said he felt many of his best compositions were for solo instruments, inspired by the memory of unaccompanied Hungarian folk musicians in his youth
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957, LA 1938-57) was perhaps the greatest child prodigy the music world has ever seen, famous throughout Europe while still a teenager. Mahler declared him a ‘genius’ at age 9 and by the time Korngold was in his young twenties, he would be one of the most successful composers in the world, with operas and concert works performed throughout the world. When the Anschluss made return to Vienna impossible, Korngold settled into a luminous career as a film composer in Los Angeles. His scores set a matchless standard for musical innovation and beauty, and his use of leitmotifs for major characters remains deeply influential in film music to this day. After the war, Korngold left film composing and attempted to restart his concert music career, but died nearly forgotten. Korngold arranged four pieces of incidental music for a 1920 production of Much Ado About Nothing for violin and piano in order to continue the performances when the orchestra had finished their contract, and it is this version that we have stolen for the cello.
Franz Waxman (1906-67, LA 34-67) was born in Germany and had an early start in the German film industry, orchestrating the score for The Blue Angel when he was only 24 years old. But a severe beating by Nazi thugs in 1934 convinced Waxman to leave Germany and he soon settled in Los Angeles, where his scores for films such Bride of Frankenstein, Rebecca, and Rear Window earned him twelve Academy Award nominations, and two Oscars for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun. His Carmen Fantasie is perhaps his best known concert work, written for the 1946 film Humoresque, and popularized in concert performances by Heifetz and others.
I had originally intended to perform Waxman’s Tristan and Isolde Fantasy, also from Humoresque, but his son John included the music to the Carmen in the mailing and trying to play this piece became an obsession for me. Not only is the Carmen the hardest thing I have ever tried to play on the cello (well beyond Tzigane or Paganini 24), but this entire program is the hardest program I have ever attempted. It is perhaps a little bit crazy to try, but I love this music, I love advocating for it and hope to help expand the repertoire I believe that part of our job as musicians is to continue to push ourselves: A dog chasing a cars may not end with a caught car, but it does make a faster dog! My greatest hope is not to be admired for trying some technical feat, but to inspire others to know that they can do the same, and that together we can improve both the repertoire and technique of our instrument. As I have said before, I promise you there is nothing special about me, other than perhaps being a bit too dense to know not to try. Anything I can do, you can do too, and it is our job to advocate for the music we believe in and to push ourselves to become the most effective advocates we can for the art that matters to us. I promise you this is the path to making your life as a musician both successful and personally meaningful. Happy exploring!
Recommended reading: “A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Emigres and Exiles in Southern California,” by Dorothy Lamb Crawford
Hailed by Newsday for “extraordinary musicianship…forceful, sophisticated and entirely in the spirit of the music,” cellist Brinton Averil Smith continues to win rave reviews for virtuosic performances with musical ideals rooted in the golden age of string playing. His debut recording of Miklós Rózsa’s Cello Concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra won widespread international critical acclaim, with Gramophone praising Smith as a “hugely eloquent, impassioned soloist,” and his recording of chamber music of Fauré with Gil Shaham was chosen by numerous critics as one of the year’s best albums. As a chamber musician, he has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, Cho-Liang Lin, Lynn Harrell, Sarah Chang, Dawn Upshaw and members of the Beaux Arts Trio and the Guarneri, Emerson, Juilliard, Cleveland, and Berg quartets. Mr. Smith is the principal cellist of the Houston Symphony and a faculty member of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. He was previously a member of the New York Philharmonic and the principal cellist of the San Diego and Fort Worth symphonies. His performances have been broadcast throughout the world including, in the US, on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s Performance Today and Symphonycast. At age 10, Mr. Smith was admitted part-time to Arizona State University, studying mathematics, music and German, and he completed a B.A. in mathematics at age 17. He received his masters and doctoral degrees from Juilliard, studying with renown cellist Zara Nelsova and writing on the playing of Emanuel Feuermann.