Witty, rhythmic, jazzy: delighted audiences speak these words about the music of the 20th-century avant-garde composer Erwin Schulhoff, even as they shake their heads over the story of his life.
This month, Cornish College of the Arts presents an entire festival of Schulhoff’s work. Opening weekend features four performances of a world premiere theatre piece called Tempo of Recollection, created by Seattle Repertory Theatre’s producing director, Nick Schwartz-Hall.
“It’s meant to evoke a kind of 1925 dance hall set, late in the evening,” says Schwartz-Hall. “A few musicians are hanging out on stage as though they may have come over after their own work that night, and some actors, and a singer who’s probably slumming — a little of everything. The idea is to make a performance context for the audience to hear this music.”
“It’s a bit of an experiment,” says Schwartz-Hall of what he calls a “staged music project. A lot of tech, stage design, music — it’ll be new and interesting for the audience. You don’t get to do a piece like this very often.”
Schulhoff was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague in 1894. Prodigiously talented, he studied traditional classical music and fell under the spell of Europe’s fascination with jazz. Dada influenced him.
“You’ll see some Dada moments in the show,” says Schwartz-Hall, “and you’ll be surprised, but these are things he actually scored.”
A protégé of Dvorak and Debussy, acclaimed keyboard virtuoso, comfortable in both concert halls and cabarets, Schulhoff eventually found himself on the wrong side of the right wing.
A young man in love with the avant-garde in art, and with the ideals of the Communist movement in politics (his works include a 1932 musical setting of the Communist Manifesto), he was touring Europe, including Germany, France, and England, performing and composing, until he was banned by Nazi blacklists for both his heritage and his politics.
He used a fake name to perform in Prague, and petitioned the Soviet government for citizenship, but the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia landed him in prison and eventually in a concentration camp, where he died at the age of 48.
Schulhoff’s story puts him in the category of “Holocaust composer” — indeed, many Seattle concertgoers first encountered his spirited musical voice in performances by Music of Remembrance, the Seattle chamber music ensemble dedicated to rescuing music written by composers murdered in the Shoah.
The Cornish festival includes some MOR regulars — Seattle Symphony members Mikhail Schmidt, violin, and Amos Yang, cello — as well as other Seattle Symphony musicians, distinguished Cornish faculty, professional actors, and visiting scholars: in all, about two dozen participants.
Derek Katz, a Schulhoff scholar in the Music History department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, comes in for a panel discussion about the composer on Monday, January 22 at noon. He will be joined by Carol Shiffman, Cornish Music Department chair, director Schwartz-Hall, and the members of the St. Helens String Quartet, a Cornish resident ensemble.
The St. Helens String Quartet (Michael Lim and Adrianna Hulscher, violins, Michael Lieberman, viola and Paige Stockley Lerner, cello), will appear in the four performances of Tempo of Recollection (January 18-21), joining faculty pianist Peter Mack, soprano Robin Johnson, and pianist/actor Jose Gonzales (“a major fan of this music” according to Schwartz-Hall), with choreography by Sheila Daniels.
Daniels, whose works have been seen at Capitol Hill Arts Center, On the Boards, Theater Schmeater, and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, teaches acting and cross-disciplinary collaboration at Cornish. Four Cornish student performers will round out the cast.
The festival’s second weekend presents three different programs of Schulhoff’s music: chamber music on Friday, Jan. 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m., and solo piano music (pianist Peter Mack) on Saturday, Jan. 27 at 8 p.m.. Both chamber music concerts will feature strings, piano, and winds. Performers will include Cornish faculty flutist Paul Taub, a co-founder (with Schmidt) of Seattle Chamber Players, arguably the city’s most influential contemporary music ensemble.
A year ago, some of these same musicians presented a concert called “Unity and Diversity in Religion and Culture” at Cornish. As Seattle’s standard-bearer for forward-thinking arts work (Merce Cunningham studied there; John Cage taught there), Cornish honors its bold heritage with this Erwin Schulhoff Festival.