Composer Moishe Weinberg would turn 100 this coming Sunday. That would not normally merit much more than a footnote somewhere… except that he is the best composer of the Twentieth Century that almost no one has heard of. I have mentioned before that I discovered him accidentally about five years ago while reading (I’ve also mentioned his tragic backstory before), and was curious enough to look up some of his music online. I became hooked, and searched out and bought a whole stack of CDs expecting I would probably not get much opportunity to hear his music live.
Some others have also discovered him, including violinist Gidon Kremer, who brought a fair amount of his music to a series of concerts at the Musikverein during the Vienna Festival Weeks a few months after I made my discovery. I had tickets… but then had to cancel and missed what I assumed was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. One piano quintet appeared on the program of the Salzburg Festival in 2016. But where could I hear more live?
The rising star conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla seems to have caught the bug from Gidon Kremer. And then Frank Stadler, concertmaster of Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, discovered him as well. Stadler presented two Weinberg chamber works (a quartet and a trio) at a concert I attended last winter, for which Gražinytė-Tyla made the journey to Salzburg to hear from the audience (and Stadler invited her on stage to provide some words of introduction). And the two of them hinted they might do more together this Fall. Last month that meant Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the Mozarteum Orchestra for Weinberg’s second symphony. And now we have a mini Weinberg Festival, presented by Stadler and Gražinytė-Tyla, performing a selection of Weinberg’s chamber music over five days, culminating in his birthday on Sunday.
The opening event in the series came this evening: the 1957 film The Cranes Are Flying by the Russified Georgian film director Mikhail Kalatozov (born Kalatozishvili), a landmark of Soviet cinema. Weinberg wrote the film music. High quality film music indeed.
Before the film, we got a lecture about Weinberg from University of Salzburg Professor Karl Müller (from which I learned that in 1939 Weinberg, then at the Warsaw Conservatory, had been accepted to study composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia… before his life’s tragedy began, so it never happened; in typical fashion around here – welcome to Austria – the Professor originally referred to the “German invasion of Poland” but then decided to rephrase himself, backing up and clarifying that he should have said “Hitler’s invasion of Poland by means of (‘durch‘) the German army” as though Hitler acted alone and the poor Germans – and of course Austrians – could not do anything to help themselves. There are too many of these thinly-veiled Nazi apologists around here.)
After Müller’s talk, the Stadler Quartet performed Weinberg’s Capriccio opus 11, written in 1943 from his exile in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, shortly before Schostakowitsch, who had discovered his talent, managed to get him brought to Moscow. It started off sounding like a rather routine classical string quartet, and then went absolutely haywire, combining musical jokes with a degree of melancholy, with periodic classical lines weaving in and out. Although an early work, it indeed demonstrating the talent that made Weinberg such a curious composer. His music is not big (this is just a chamber work, of course, but his symphonies too have intimacy), and it is also well-rooted in classical tradition, but it has several levels of complexity, making it an intellectual delight to listen to in addition to just being beautiful music. Where some composers may just repeat formulas, and others may forget they are writing music in the interest of doing something different, Weinberg managed to shatter convention without forgetting the transformative nature of good pleasant music.
I’m looking forward to the concerts on the coming days.