Little Joe’s mother is sick, but there’s no money for milk. Joe and his friend Annette go to the village square to sing for money, but that annoys Brundibár, the town minstrel. He drowns them out with a loud song. With the help of the Cat, the Bird and the Dog, Joe and Annette muster the village children, who defeat the minstrel and save the Mother. Curtain.
That’s not much, as opera plots go, but the history of Brundibár itself, which I saw performed by a bunch of exuberant kids at Santa Monica’s Miles Memorial Playhouse a couple of Fridays ago, is better yet. Its composer, Hans Krása, created the short opera in Prague in 1938, for the children of a Jewish orphanage. Came the Nazi takeover, and the establishment of the concentration camp at Terezín (Theresienstadt) as a showcase to prove to the outside world that Hitler’s thugs did indeed care for the arts. Krása led 55 performances of Brundibár at Terezín, including one before a visiting Red Cross commission, and one that was filmed and circulated in a documentary about those lovely, art-loving Nazis. Soon thereafter, Krása was dragged off to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. In addition to the opera, his name survives in a small repertory of chamber and vocal works, some of them composed during his years of imprisonment.
Brundibár arrived here garlanded in publicity, but it turns out to be a slight work, its harmonies nicely spiced with a touch of Weill/Hindemith, its tunes obviously the work of a man who knew how to make young singers and their audiences feel good — which this ensemble certainly did, thanks to Eli Villanueva’s staging and Daniel Faltus’ musical direction. This was the latest production of Opera Camp, a project now 3 years old, a partnership of the Los Angeles Opera and the Madison Project of Santa Monica College, with additional collaboration this time from the Museum of Tolerance and Santa Monica’s Miles Memorial Playhouse. The value of such a project should be obvious every time you face another snoozing, doddering operatic audience at the Music Center.
One further aspect of this particular event moved me deeply: Next to me at the Miles Playhouse sat a lady by the name of Ela Weissberger, smiling and giving off waves of pride. It turned out that she had been the Cat in 1944 performances of Brundibár at Terezín (including the one on film). Imagine! Imagine the memories this glorious old person can wear like a bright medallion! Mrs. Weissberger immigrated to the U.S. shortly after WWII and now lives in my old stomping ground, New York’s Rockland County. (The Nazi-made film of Terezín’s children, including a scene from Brundibár with Ela Weissberger, has been incorporated into Prisoner of Paradise, Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender’s new documentary on the treacherous charms of Terezín. It opens here in late January.)
So there we were, this authentic piece of history and my humble self, side by side, schmoozing about the 76 House and the Community Market and Mr. Hitler. Tell me I don’t have the world’s best job!
Clarinet, violin, cello, piano: It’s an attractive combination, and you’d automatically assume the presence of a large romantic repertory for such a combo — Schumann, surely, and Hummel and Spohr. But no; my search of Grove’s Dictionary yields nothing. The brave young ensemble called Antares (a large red star in Scorpio) must seek its repertory in the present and the as-yet-unwritten. Another group of similar constitution — Tashi, whose members included Peter Serkin and Richard Stoltzman — has come and gone, leaving some impressive footsteps for Antares to follow. If it’s as good as it sounded at its debut concert at LACMA last week, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Antares drew a large and friendly crowd, much of it drawn from the past and present student body at Crossroads, that superior private high school with one of the best music programs in town; the group’s pianist, Eric Huebner, is a Crossroads product, and still something of a local hero for some bright and ballsy music making while he was still a student. Now the group — whose other members are violinist Vesselin Gellev, cellist Rebecca Patterson and clarinetist Garrick Zoeter — has been pulling down residencies and prizes all over the map and eliciting the beginnings of a repertory of its own.
Charles Wuorinen’s Tashi filled most of the first half of the program, music written and named for the previous ensemble. I’ve nurtured an ongoing admiration for Wuorinen’s music, with its high quotient of braininess. But if I needed an East Coast paradigm to illustrate why I’m happier on the West Coast, this very correct, very complicated, intricate music would do just fine. I just can’t write about this music anymore; you can kick a dead cat for just so long. The program’s second half had newer music and newer ideas. Antares is a lively bunch; the free swing of Kevin Puts’ Simaku and a lovable James Matheson trifle called Buzz brought things to life on both sides of the stage. It wasn’t all fluff, either; a long, haunting, jazz-tinted piece called Exil by a Stuttgart composer named Volker David Kirchner evoked the spirits of Bartók and Miles Davis along its expressive path.
It had been nearly 20 years since local-born Michael Tilson Thomas last conducted the local orchestra. His behavior on the Philharmonic podium in his last appearances here — not easily forgotten, including a version of the “Eroica” best described as “bratty” — had brought down management’s wrath, and deservedly so. As a vehicle for riding back into the affections of the hometown folks, he chose curiously: Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, of all the Viennese master’s off-putting works the one most hopelessly awash in pure Weltkvetsch.
In those 20 years away, most of them spent sopping up adoration in the community he was put on Earth to serve, the Tilson Thomas legend has grown to resemble the exact size and shape of San Francisco itself. The two elements were inseparable in the Mahler: a flamboyant opportunism that paid little heed to such matters as musical form and narrative, but feasted blatantly and gorgeously upon every disconnected moment. Since the matter at hand was a work of exasperating prolixity and — especially in its final half-hour (or was it half a day?) — of ugliness difficult to match anywhere in the symphonic repertory, the exercise left the world no worse off than before. Bad music, badly chosen and performed no better than it deserved: It was the same old MTT; you’d know him anywhere.