Saturday 30 August 2008

Edinburgh International Festival: Wolpe! Welche Farbe hat der Vogel? 29 August 2008

The Hub

Viviane De Muynck (actress)
Johan Bossers (piano)
Gunnar Brandt-Sigurdsson (tenor/vocalist)
Caroline Petrick (coach)
Herman Sorgeloos (visual concept)
Muziektheater Transparant

Described beforehand as a ‘staged concert’, I dare say that is as close as we are likely to get; perhaps it would simply be better to file Wolpe! under ‘unclassifiable’. It should also be filed under ‘excellent’. In this show, which Antwerp-based Muziektheater Transparant has been touring since its January Brussels premiere in the Beurrschouwburg, not only are we treated to fine performances of a number of Stefan Wolpe’s songs, mostly but not exclusively from the period 1929-33, and his later, American-period Battle Piece for piano (1943-7). We are also given a greater context for and further exploration of the composer’s political ideas, their relevance for his music and for us – at a time when socialist, let alone communist hopes often seem so utterly confounded. In addition, we are treated to an extremely enjoyable hour-and-a-half in the theatre. In the words of the economist, Siegfried Moos, set by Wolpe in the second stanza of Haben Sie Kummer, the song that opened the evening’s proceedings:

Besser als Kintopp, besser als Fusel,
Gibt das Theater sel’gen Dusel.
Mit wenig Moneten verzagen Sie nie!
Die Bühnenstars begeistern auch Sie!
Gerade für Sie sind doch unsere Gaben.
Auch Bildung können Sie bei uns haben!

(Better than the pictures, better than hooch,
The theatre gives you blessed dreams.
Never despair with your few pennies!
The stars of our stage will also inspire you!
Our gifts are especially for you.
You can receive an education with us too!)

Musiektheater Transparant thus follows firmly in the tradition of Die Truppe, the late-Weimar theatre collective in which Wolpe himself served as musical director. Proscribed upon the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Die Truppe satirised contemporary political and social problems, whilst propagandising for Marxist solutions. Musiektheater Transparant was less concerned directly to proselytise but instead aimed to make the audience think, to consider possibilities beyond the depressing, suppressive current orthodoxies; that is, the company successfully attempted to accomplish what all art should do.

‘Staged concert’ is not, on reflection, at all a bad description of Wolpe! It was certainly not a play. What we had was a little staging but no characters as such, and various numbers interspersed with varied commentary from the wonderful Viviane De Muynck. This could take the form of stores concerning Wolpe’s life and work, readings from utopians Plato and Thomas More, reflections upon the nature of propaganda and activism (and the difference between the two), and observations upon matters political and social. The warmth of De Muynck’s personality and her evident commitment to Wolpe shone through. I assume that some at least of the material was provided by ‘coach’, Caroline Petrick; some of the categories in the credits did not necessarily translate directly into English stage experience, but then this was above all a collective effort. Johan Bossers proved an equally committed pianist, both in the piano parts to the songs and in the technically fearsome Battle Piece. This latter we heard in three tranches, Wolpe’s style falling somewhere between Schoenberg and Prokofiev, with a trenchant commitment that is all his own, as is the insistence upon the vertical and spatial dimensions of music in addition to traditionally linear, goal-oriented (Beethovenian) form. (Wolpe’s pupils would include Morton Feldman and David Tudor.) Gunnar Brandt-Sigurdsson’s contribution was very fine: secure of line and in style, diction impeccable, and possessed of a winning and appropriate theatricality.

An especial highpoint musically was the Dadaist An Anna Blume, ‘for piano and musical clown’, based upon an initial twelve-note theme, developed with an integrity born both of rigour and of true freedom: perhaps a useful way to consider Wolpe’s art more generally. The Brecht setting, Ballade von der Osseger Witwen, in which we learned what would be done for the mourning widows of Osseg – nothing – was genuinely moving. And in Die Herren der Welt, we were left in no doubt as to the identity of the rulers of the world, the barbarous tenacity with which they would maintain their grip, and the anger we should and did feel concerning this. However, the greatest tribute to the performers must be that the true star of the evening was Stefan Wolpe himself. Let us hope that other companies, other musicians, other institutions will take note. On the basis of this evening, they really should.

A CD, comprising much of the music from this show and some other Lieder, has been issued (NEOS 10719). I bought a copy immediately after the performance, although I have yet to hear it. Working upon the assumption that it may give some indication of this inspiring event – sadly, minus Viviane De Muynck – I shall nevertheless chance my arm and heartily recommend it.