Over the last couple of months, the Arts Institute at the University of Plymouth has been taking an in-depth look at Expressionism in the Arts. Initially an art movement and international tendency at the beginning of the 20th century, Expressionism spanned the visual arts, literature, music, theatre and architecture, the aim of its artists being to express emotional experience, rather than physical reality.
Under the inspired tutelage of Dr Robert Taub, Arts Institute Director of Music, recent Musica Viva recitals have been examining the movement specifically from the musical standpoint. The first major event, back in March, concentrated on a cross-section of the piano music of Scriabin, followed by a riveting performance of Schoenberg’s iconic fully-fledged Expressionistic work, ‘Pierrot Lunaire’.
The closing event investigated the unique blend of Expressionism created by husband and wife team of Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya, who, in fact, married in 1926, divorced in 1933, and remarried in 1937, until Weill’s death in 1950.
Lotte Lenya was an Austrian-American singer, diseuse, and actress, based, most of her life, in the United States. In the German-speaking, and classical-music world, she is best remembered for her performances of Weill’s songs. However, to film-goers everywhere, Lotte Lenya will always be celebrated for her supporting-role as Rosa Klebb in the classic James Bond movie, ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963).
The evening was divided into two halves, the first featuring songs from 1927-33, and the second from 1933-50. Midway through the first half, there was also the opportunity to hear Weill’s only work for piano solo – his ‘Intermezzo’ (1917). The programme featured most of his best-known examples, including ‘Mack the Knife’, which Weill and Bertold Brecht had written in 1928 for the German play ‘The Threepenny Opera’.
The programme was designed as a biopic on the composer’s life with Lenya, with songs interspersed with readings given by the pianist, or delivered from a learnt-script by the singer. Additionally, there was a violinist on stage, ideally to share the job of providing the evening’s instrumental accompaniment with the pianist.
Think of Berlin
With the obligatory pre-concert discussion done-and-dusted in good time, it should then have been a case of merely sitting back and thinking of Berlin. However, there appeared a slight hiatus which seemed to have something to do with the sound reinforcement, since the engineer needed to leave his mixing-desk, perhaps to check or adjust a piece of equipment which one of the artists, waiting off-stage, had on their person. However, the engineer eventually gave the thumbs up, and the show began without further ado.
My in-depth review at Seen and Heard International (see link below) continues the story in greater detail, but, suffice it to say, we were never really quite out of the words from here on in.
In a nutshell, it came down to two separate issues. Firstly whether amplification was needed at all, or, if so, the amount used, and its positioning. Singer and presenter, Monica Arnó’s face-mike, was inconspicuous, yet eminently effective – perfect for her routines and movements around the stage, and briefly into the audience.
On his own admission during the pre-concert discussion, pianist and musical director, Charles Prince let slip that he wasn’t, first and foremost, a pianist, something that was going to come back and haunt him later in the performance itself. For, given that even top-class pianists don’t automatically become top-class accompanists, it made for an interesting scenario to follow.
Unfortunately, as soon as Mr Prince started to play, it was clear that, whatever else, he was not a sympathetic accompanist. So often, heavy, repeated right-hand chords, all but drowned out the singer, which was exacerbated by a standing mike adjacent to the piano, for his use when reading from the libretto, but which also seemed to pick up and amplify these repeated chords, due to its proximity to the instrument’s treble strings.
Then there was the violinist, who had no amplification at all. She had clearly been provided with a part to play which had simply been fashioned from the song-book scores Mr Prince was swapping around on the piano’s reading-desk as the programme unfolded. In reality, she could emulate a lovely ‘Grappelli-like’ tone, but effectively she had so little to do, a scrap here, a few bars there – and she was a victim of the insensitive accompaniment, too – that I sincerely hope she hadn’t travelled from her native Venezuela just to participate in tonight’s gig.
What finally tipped the balance, though, was that everything about Austrian-born Monica Arnó had the hallmark of a true professional – her immaculate costumes, stage-presence, vocal delivery – even hair-style – were all just spot on, magically to transport her audience back to some smoky cabaret club on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm in the late 20s.
But unfortunately, it seemed as if the stage was literally split right down the middle – stage left was Fräulein Arnó in her virtual 20s night-club setting, while, stage right, it still seemed part of a lecture-theatre where, probably only the day before, university students were watching a presentation on Global Warming in the 2020s. The sheer professionalism and joie de vivre which Fräulein Arnó exuded so abundantly, just didn’t seem to be able to make it across the divide.
Bizarrely, it rather reminded me of my first visit to post-war Berlin, when we still enjoyed the frisson of passing through the real Checkpoint Charlie, to cross into East Berlin – something like Potsdam to Plymouth, perhaps?
You can read my full review here at Seen and Heard International.
Monica Arnó (voice), Charles Prince (piano and musical director), Evelyn Estava (violin)
Sherwell Centre, University of Plymouth
Philip R Buttall
top image: Kurt Weill (left), Monica Arnó (centre) and Lotte Lenya (right)
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