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Work of forgotten composer heard at last

By Richard Scheinin
Mercury News

Last Sunday afternoon, in a Saratoga church, the newly reconstructed piano concerto of a largely forgotten Jewish composer named Eric Zeisl was given its world premiere.

This was a major and unlikely event, for Zeisl, born 100 years ago this month, had been a formidable composer, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna who made his way to Los Angeles, raised a family, wrote prolifically -- everything from film music to opera -- and then died in 1959 of a heart attack after teaching a night class at Los Angeles City College.

Igor Stravinsky was among those who grieved his passing, a testament to Zeisl's standing among composers in Los Angeles, where Stravinsky was an émigré. Yet few of Zeisl's works were performed in his lifetime and not a single one had been given a premiere since his death at age 53.

And now, out of the blue, Jason Klein, a conductor with an addiction for rare repertory, was about to lead the Saratoga Symphony, a spirited little orchestra filled with devoted amateurs, in a performance of Zeisl's Piano Concerto in C Major, completed 53 years ago and relegated to a dusty drawer in Los Angeles.

Recovering a voice

``The first performance ever awaits you in a few minutes,'' Klein, a gabby maestro with a knack for creating excitement, told his 250 or so listeners at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, the orchestra's base of operations.

Zeisl's daughter, Barbara Zeisl Schoenberg -- she is married to Ronald Schoenberg, son of Arnold Schoenberg, the composer, who also was a refugee in Los Angeles -- had driven up from Southern California for the big event and was seated in the ninth row. So was Malcolm S. Cole, a retired UCLA musicologist and Zeisl's biographer, whom Klein now introduced as ``the world's leading expert on the music of Eric Zeisl.''

Loud applause broke out as Cole, very much the rumpled professor, got up and told the audience about Zeisl's ``odyssey'': barely escaping Vienna in November 1938, the day after Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom, and moving to Paris, then New York and finally Los Angeles, where he wrote the piano concerto in three movements that are ``spacious, technically demanding and hauntingly beautiful.''

A tingly excitement filled the church as Cole described the detective work involved in resurrecting the music: Zeisl had left two messy, handwritten versions that needed to be transcribed and cleared of ``gremlins,'' the wrong notes and other miscues that inevitably sneak into a score before it comes to life in rehearsal. And this piece had never been rehearsed by an orchestra until last month.

Still, ``the recovery of the voice behind these notes'' is well under way, Cole assured the audience, proudly describing the concerto's ``soaring melodies, irresistible dances, intense modal harmonies and intricate counterpoint -- you are sharing Zeisl's journey from exile to sanctuary.''

And then Klein blessed the music's maiden voyage: ``May this concerto have a long life,'' he said, calling out the soloist, pianist Daniel Glover of San Francisco, who has a history of learning prodigiously difficult music in short amounts of time.

A youthful 47-year-old in a black tuxedo, Glover, smiling shyly, sat down at the piano and, following Klein's downbeat, launched into Zeisl's forgotten concerto.

A dignified sadness


Immediately, there was a wonderful tunefulness, a unison melody for strings and piano -- and it was soaring, gorgeous, the piano part now shadowed, a little shakily, by one of the horns. Amid trumpet fanfares and flying violins -- out of tune, but spirited, these string players -- Glover, not shaky at all, rocketed through the big melodies, adorned with all sorts of opulent trills and tumbling flourishes, and broke out into massive cadenzas.

``This guy really plays,'' Cole murmured after the lengthy first movement, which had been filled with sharply percussive dancing passages and ecstatically clanging chords in the keyboard's upper regions.

The glinty brilliance of the music, and its way of putting the piano in dialogue with the orchestra, was reminiscent of Bartók. Its playfulness recalled Prokofiev. Clearly, Zeisl had his influences, but also, as Cole had been saying, his own voice: In the second movement, it was heard in the haunting tunefulness, the piano painting notes against a soft backdrop of teeming strings.

In the third movement, the mood turned grave, spikier and more dissonant, with a whirling danse macabre and then a Semitic melody, dressed up like Rachmaninoff, but still expressing a dignified sadness.

The audience sat rapt as Glover, an incisive, exciting and apparently tireless player, drove the music toward its big chiming finish.

Then the audience burst into applause. What an event! ``Bravo!'' shouted Zeisl-Schoenberg. Standing, she looked at Cole, seated next to her, and, with a big smile, said, ``Well, that was a thrill.''

``Oh,'' answered the beaming Cole, obviously beside himself, ``that was exciting.''

``He's terrific,'' Zeisl-Schoenberg, still applauding, said of Glover.

``He discovered the voice behind the notes,'' Cole said, nodding. ``They all did.''

Zeisl-Schoenberg, a retired professor of German language and literature at Pomona College, seemed happily overwhelmed by the experience: In a way, it had brought her father to life. She could recall so much about him: his piano playing, teaching and composing in the family's West Hollywood home. She even recalled living room rehearsals for the piano concerto with Eda Schlatter Jameson, the intended soloist for a performance in Vienna that never materialized.

Odyssey of a concerto

A melancholy man who missed his country of birth, Zeisl never returned to Vienna. How odd: Here in Saratoga, in an Episcopal church, 46 years after his death, the concerto finally was born: ``The second movement had a wistfulness, a sadness that reflected what my father was like,'' Zeisl-Schoenberg said. ``My father was full of melody.''

Broadly speaking, the rediscovery of Zeisl's piano concerto is part of the renewed interest in music by Jewish composers who were persecuted by the Nazis. Some of these composers were forever silenced: Viktor Ullmann was gassed at Auschwitz in 1944; Erwin Schulhoff died of tuberculosis in a Bavarian concentration camp in 1942.

Others escaped, some landing in Los Angeles, which became sanctuary to an entire community of Jewish émigré composers: Schoenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alexandre Tansman, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, Nathaniel Shilkret.

Zeisl -- who barely knew Schoenberg, by the way, though his daughter eventually would carry Schoenberg's name -- was among the youngest and least well-known of the bunch. He had fled Vienna at age 33, before his musical reputation was firmly established.

Living in West Hollywood with his wife, Gertrud, a Viennese lawyer who became a Los Angeles schoolteacher, he went to work for MGM, scoring music for ``Lassie Come Home,'' ``Baton'' and other films, but never received an on-screen credit.

He turned to teaching (one of his students at City College was Jerry Goldsmith, who became a distinguished Hollywood film composer). And encouraged by composer friends in California, including Darius Milhaud, he turned exclusively to classical composition: operas, ballet music, choral music, all sorts of chamber works and orchestral opuses, including a cello concerto, which he never heard. It was performed at his memorial service.

There have been occasional recordings of Zeisl's compositions through the years, as well as a handful of performances. Last November, his Requiem Ebraico, written in 1944 after he learned his parents had perished in the camps, was performed at Stanford University. But the piano concerto -- this was a mystery.

Luckily, there lives in Saratoga a Stanford engineering professor named Robert Feigelson, an aficionado of forgotten composers, who once studied piano with a niece of Shilkret's. Two years ago, Feigelson assisted Sterling Records, a small Swedish label, in the release of a CD containing music by one of his heroes, the pianist and composer Franz Xaver Scharwenka.

Coincidentally, he learned, Klein was about to mount a Saratoga Symphony performance of a Scharwenka concerto, with the Russian-born, Fremont-reared piano prodigy Natasha Paremski as soloist. But Klein needed money to stage the event, so Feigelson began to raise it, receiving help from another lover of obscure music, Jim Semadeni of Kansas City.

It was Semadeni who mentioned the Zeisl concerto to Feigelson, suggesting that the composer's family might have a manuscript. And so the Eric Zeisl project was born, on the cusp of the composer's centenary. Feigelson mentioned it to Klein who, naturally, was enthused at the chance to introduce his Saratoga audience to more glorious music from the margins of history.

Glover, a natural for this sort of hyper-virtuosic challenge, was enlisted. So was a Stanford music undergraduate named David Nunez, who transcribed the handwritten music into a printed score. One thing led to the next and soon Zeisl-Schoenberg and Cole were embroiled in the plot.

The professor had been studying Zeisl's music since the late '60s, when one of Zeisl's nephews, enrolled in one of Cole's classes, said ``he wanted to write a paper on his uncle, who happened to be a composer,'' Cole recalled after Sunday's performance.

``I said, `Who's that?' ''

```Eric Zeisl.''

``That got the ball rolling,'' Cole said. He began visiting Gertrud Zeisl, who lived within walking distance of the UCLA campus: ``Friday was our day.'' He set down an extensive oral history, helped establish the Eric Zeisl Archive at UCLA and, with Barbara Barclay, a colleague, co-authored ``Armseelchen: The Life and Music of Eric Zeisl'' (Greenwood Press), published in 1984.

Armseelchen is German for ``poor little soul'' and also is the name of a song written by Zeisl as a young man. ``Zeisl felt it was symbolic of his life,'' Cole said.

Eventually, Cole and Zeisl-Schoenberg hope there will be more performances of the concerto and a professional recording.

It isn't likely that the Saratoga Symphony will be involved: After all, its tympanist counts out loud; its string players are not intonation specialists.

But the doctors, lawyers and computer engineers who play in the gutsy little orchestra sure put themselves into Sunday's performance. It was imperfect but, more importantly, it got inside Zeisl's lyricism, his melancholy, his spirit.

Afterward, dozens of listeners lingered, congratulating Klein, Glover, Zeisl-Schoenberg and Cole.

``Well, we were all part of a first,'' the professor said.

Glover was among the last to leave.

``I'm honored to have been involved in a project like this,'' he said. ``Everyone's thanking me and my feeling is -- what a feather in my cap.''
Contact Richard Scheinin at or (408) 920-5069.

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