Meeting, Greeting and Great Art

On Wednesday, April 17th, visitors at the Louis Meisel Gallery in Soho, celebrating Pianofest in the Hamptons, were treated to pianist Michael Brown’s deliciously delivered pianistic morsels with an ephemeral selection of even briefer pieces, written in episodic shorthand by Leonard Bernstein (from Anniversaries and West Side Story Suite) and Aaron Copland (El Salón México).

Photo: GetClassical.org – Ilona Oltuski, selfie with narrator D.Terry Williams

Surrounded by the collection of the gallery’s PhotoRealism, founder and director Paul Schenly, introduced Pianofest’s mission to newcomers and welcomed returning fans and alumni.

The weightier fare that evening was the New York premiere of Viktor Ullman’s dramatic recitation/recital of The Tale of Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, for narrator and piano, based on the poems by the Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke. (original title in German: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke)

Ullman, a Czech Jewish composer/pianist and writer, had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg and during the 1920s a choirmaster and co-repetiteur under Alexander von Zemlinsky, in the New German Theatre in Prague. Until the 1940s had accumulated quite a catalog of his own works; an oeuvre cut short by his murder in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, in 1944.

During his two years of captivity at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Ullman still produced 23 works, including his final output, The Tale of Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke. Based on Rilke’s poem about a soldier’s final campaign of nationalistic ideology, Ullman’s music serves as an atmospheric tone-painting, following the events closely. “Prior to his death in 1944, he wrote that [artistic] form must be understood from the perspective of Goethe and Schiller as that which overcomes matter or substance [and where] the secret of every work of art is the annihilation of matter through form—something that can possibly be seen as the overall mission of the human being, not only the aesthetic but ethical human being as well.  Within the context of his own compositions, Ullmann used form as a powerful commentary on his own self–conscious engagement with the traditions of Western art music as he engaged with them in the works of Schoenberg, Mahler and Berg,” describes OREL foundation’s Gwyneth Bravo.

The collaboration between pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski, Pianofest alumnus and artist-in-residence, and that of the narrator D. Terry Williams’, was extraordinarily successful.

William’s clear and penetrating, yet expressive voice combined with Soukhovetski’s rich coloration that adjusted to the often minute changes of the text with utmost transparency, brought out the lyric sweep of the romantic storyline, without failing its abrupt, dramatic tilts and halts.

Photo: by Ilona Oltuski 

pianist/arranger Konstantin Soukhovetski piano, narrator D.Terry Willimas

Perhaps more so than in a chamber music work with different instruments, timing is everything in such close-knit interaction and dependencies between two different mediums, like voice and piano. Both artists made this a convincing dramaturgical act and showed off Soukhovetski’s great talent and love for theatrical productions, which we will hear more about in the near future.

He has previously shown a special passion for this world in his own opera transcriptions for the piano.

As a director of theater at the University of Northern Iowa and later professor emeritus of theater at the Western Michigan University, D. Terry Williams served as a chair of the Department of Theater for 23 years, the longest term of service for a chair in the history of WMU.

The recipient of the Arts Council’s Community Medal of Arts Award, among other special acknowledgments, Williams has narrated The Tale of Love and Death of Cornet Christopher last year at the Gilmore Festival.

By Ilona Oltuski