Embassy of Austria
Washington Musica Viva, Hans Gal and “What a Life”
May 28, 2009
Carl Banner and Washington Musica Viva like nothing better than the opportunity to rescue from oblivion a forgotten 20th century composer. Last night Washington Musica Viva and the Austrian Cultural Forum presented music written by an obscure composer who had co-edited the complete works of Brahms, had his music banned in Germany because of his Jewish heritage, and became an “enemy alien” in Britain during World War II. A sizeable audience turned out to see what the music of Hans Gal might actually sound like, and to “see” or “hear” the US premiere of What a Life, a bilingual internment camp revue for which Gal wrote the music in 1940.
Although Banner introduced the evening by stating that Gal’s music is “complex without being obscure” and suggested strong overtones of Brahms and Schubert within the music, what the audience discovered was that Gal was the Scottish Poulenc. Gal wrote delightful music, a little campy in flavor, certainly containing ample “popular” approaches to the blending of instrumental sounds. This may not be jazz, but the saucy intensity, the arch development of themes and sudden interruptions of contrasting sensations, had more to say about Paris or New York than about Viennese chocolate box operettas or the gloom of Gal’s adopted Edinburgh.
The program broke easily into two parts, beginning with two substantial compositions written after World War II. The various musicians played both the Suite for Alto Saxophone and Piano and the Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. Here the flavor of Poulenc was palpable. After the intermission, Bret Werb of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum introduced two works written by Gal during his four-month internment in 1940. Werb read appropriate passages from Gal’s diary of the period. Gal’s Huyton Suite for flute and two violins was written soon after Gal had been interned, and constrained by the instruments available to the musicians interned with him. This is a slight work, but not a work to be disdained.
Mezzo-soprano Karyn Friedman, tightly gowned as a torch singer in red spangles, was the sparkle for What a Life, as she sang all the songs. The lyrics are eminently forgettable, cute but also a bit trite. Only the music raises this work above the mediocrity of a summer camp effort. Except for Gal’s score, nothing else has survived from this revue.
Stephen Neal Dennis