take Kurt Weill's ›The seven deadly sins‹ to the USA

Ever since their acclaimed ›Threepenny Opera‹ was released on CD and performed at the Frankfurt Schauspielhaus in the mid-1990s, they have been regarded as the ultimate Weill team – Ensemble Modern and the Austrian conductor, chansonnier and composer HK Gruber. Now they travel to the USA with soprano Wallis Giunta and the a cappella ensemble amarcord: in tow is another Kurt Weill classic, the charged foxtrot and tango-driven ›Seven Deadly Sins‹, for which composer Weill and author Bertolt Brecht reunited as a brilliant team in 1933. ›The Seven Deadly Sins‹ will be performed in a new version for chamber ensemble, which Ensemble Modern premiered at the Beethovenfest Bonn in 2019. Kim H. Kowalke, President of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music in New York, was able to inspire his old friend HK (Nali) Gruber and the composer Christian Muthspiel to write the arrangement. The programme for the April 2024 concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York, Houston and prior to that, at Frankfurt’s Alte Oper will include ›The Seven Deadly Sins‹ alongside works by Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Arnold Schoenberg – three composers who, like Weill, were forced to emigrate to the USA due to Nazi persecution. Guido Fischer spoke with Kim H. Kowalke about this ›Weimar‹ programme. During its trip to the USA, the Ensemble Modern will also perform another programme as Carnegie Hall’s resident ensemble. Under the baton of Stefan Asbury, they will present a programme focusing on the Cuban-American composer Tania León, who holds the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall this season. In addition to works by León, the programme includes a chamber version of Conlon Nancarrow’s zany ›Player Piano‹ studies as well as works by Andile Khumalo and Christopher Trapani.

Guido Fischer: One of the works is Weill’s ›Seven Deadly Sins‹ in the new version you initiated. What prompted you to have this work reworked?

Kim H. Kowalke: The genre-bending, hybrid nature of the majority of Weill’s stage works accounts for both their continuing fascination but also the challenges they present for production by many traditional institutions. Weill called ›Die Sieben Todsuenden‹ a »ballet chanté«: a ballet with singing. It requires at least a full-size chamber orchestra, a male quartet, two Anna’s – a singer and a dancer –, and, if staged, additional actors or dancers. These demands present one set of problems for an opera company, very different ones for a dance company, still others for productions in a Schauspielhaus. As a result, semi-staged concert performances of the work now outnumber staged performances and often transform the ballet into a type of »symphonic song cycle«. Thus, the idea of commissioning a new orchestration of the piece for just 15 players was intended to make production of the piece by theaters, dance companies, and chamber ensembles more feasible. Weill himself once suggested that ›Mahagonny‹ could benefit from a re-orchestration for 15 players. 25 years ago I approached both Hans Werner Henze and Luciano Berio with that idea, but they declined because they said its vocal demands would still be beyond theaters; they believed Mahagonny belonged in the opera house. So I asked my friend HK (Nali) Gruber if he thought it could be done with the ›Sins‹ and might he himself be interested in re-orchestrating the piece.

GF: And is it a coincidence that the instrumentation for 15 instruments is identical to that of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony?

KK: Nali and I decided on the 15-player instrumentation on a train from Salzburg to Vienna in August 2015. He had just conducted the Ensemble Modern and an all-star cast in a concert performance of ›Die Dreigroschenoper‹ at the Festival – as an »antidote« to an ill-received new 40-player orchestration by Martin Lowe for a fully staged production in the Felsenreitschule. So Nali and I both still had the EM playersin our ears as we re-imagined the ›Sins‹ for a smaller ensemble. I don’t recall either of us recollecting that Schoenberg had scored his Chamber Symphony no. 1 for 15 players – probably because its actual instrumentation is quite different from what we decided would be needed for the ›Sins‹: string quintet; flute, 2 clarinets, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, guitar/banjo, piano, timpani/percussion. Gruber eventually recruited his colleague and friend Christian Muthspiel to collaborate on the new version, which the Ensemble premiered in Bonn in September 2019. Their performance in Carnegie Hall’s ›Weimar Festival‹ next April will be its first performance in New York.

GF: How would you describe the character of this version, also in comparison to the original?

KK: Neither of us wanted a »reduction« of Weill’s original score. What was needed would be a new orchestration that managed to preserve the characteristic qualities of Weill’s sound-world but with virtuosic solo players. It became much more an »instrumental showpiece« than the original, but without altering a single melody, countermelody, or harmony. It’s not an »arrangement«. I like to think it’s what Weill himself would have written for an ensemble of fifteen.

GF: How can one perhaps hear that this version comes from the 21st century?

KK: One might, but only to a limited extent, because it still sounds remarkably like the Weill of the 1920s/30s. But the »sparseness« and »transparency « of the texture does convey a sense of the »post-modern« aesthetic one finds in some of John Adams, Steve Reich, and, of course, Gruber’s own music. I like to think of it as particularly post-Frankenstein!!‹ – Nali’s often performed ›pan-demonium‹ from the 1970s.

GF: Could you perhaps briefly say something about Weill’s relationship to the three other composers played, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Paul Hindemith?

KK: Before entering Ferruccio Busoni’s master class in Berlin, Weill hoped to study with Schoenberg in Vienna. Weill was working on his ›Sinfonie in nem Satz‹ at the time, which structurally, harmonically, and aesthetically evinces some familiarity with Schoenberg’s atonal compositions, in particular, the first Chamber Symphony. But Weill didn’t have the financial resources to move to Vienna, which probably turned out for the best. When Schoenberg later heard Marc Blitzstein playing snippets of the ›Dreigroschenoper‹ in his master class in Berlin, his response was »Lehar, yes. Weill, no. I can find no quality in his music whatsoever «. There is no surviving evidence that Weill was familiar with Korngold’s music prior to their both working in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s – in Weill’s case, only sporadically and unhappily. Their paths crossed occasionally within Reinhardt’s circle there. Weill reported to Lenya in 1937 that he had gone backstage after a Otto Klemperer concert in Los Angeles and encountered in the greenroom »the wunderkind Korngold grown old«. Weill’s relationship with Hindemith was more complicated and respectful. Hindemith was five years older, so he had a head start on Weill after the war. During the 1920s they played competitive games of professional leapfrog and one-up-man’s-ship, particularly with their chamber and concert works. In the theater Weill quickly eclipsed Hindemith’s successful early expressionist one-act operas with his own debut one-acter, ›Der Protagonist‹ (1926), and then followed, of course, with a string of groundbreaking collaborations with Brecht. One, the radio cantata ›Der Lindberghflug‹ (1929) started out as collaborative musical setting for Baden-Baden, with Hindemith and Weill composing alternate movements. But it was not a happy threesome: Hindemith withdrew his contribution and Weill set the whole of Brecht’s text independently. They were probably most aesthetically aligned in the early 20s, when both were embracing the influence of American popular dance idioms, so-called »jazz«. Weill’s first exposure to an international public occurred with the premiere of his op. 8 String Quartet during Frankfurt’s ›Kammermusikwoche‹ in June 1923. It was performed by Hindemith’s quartet. The festival also included the German premiere of ›L’histoire du soldat‹ with Hindemith playing the solo violin part, as well as his own Kammermusik Nr. 2 for wind quintet. Without the irony his own evolution would soon demand, Weill reported to Busoni: »I’m afraid that Hindemith has already danced himself a bit too far into the land of the foxtrot. « Weill’s comment may well have been provoked by the ›Finale 1921‹ of the Kammermusik Nr. 2. But Hindemith would quickly retreat, while Weill embraced musical »Amerikanismus« as an »international folk music of highest consequence«. Despite their relative geographical proximity in America in the 1940s, there is no evidence of renewed contact between the two. In fact, Weill’s only European composer friend was Darius Milhaud.

GF: You have been working with the Ensemble Modern and HK Gruber for a long time. What particularly distinguishes these musicians when they play Kurt Weill?

KK: Yes, for more than three decades now. Nali and I both view David Drew, the great Weill expert, as our mentor. David brought the three of us together in the 80s, and we collaborated on many projects. Some of the most important ones involved the Ensemble Modern, including premiere recordings of several works. I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on Nali’s rehearsals with the Ensemble Modern on several occasions. There is something very special about the encounter of an ensemble specializing in new music with a composer/conductor whose roots are deeply embedded in the music of Weill and Hanns Eisler. That combination seems to reinvent the »cutting edge« of this repertory, bringing to it the same chemistry of precision and idiomatic performance that EM players might accord a new work by Nali himself. I think some members of the EM at first thought »on the page, this doesn’t look very difficult«. Then Nali demanded the sort of dramatic and musical subtleties one must bring to Mozart, Weill’s beloved compositional idol. Over time the Ensemble has developed into a model ensemble for performing Weill.

GF: Finally, three personal questions: When did Weill’s music first grab you – and with which piece?

KK: To quote a song by Weill and Alan Jay Lerner: »I remember it well.« It was spring 1972, my first year in graduate school studying musicology at Yale. I was walking past the Yale Repertory Theatre and heard intriguing sounds coming out of the converted church where the company performed. I slipped into the back row, transfixed as they worked on a double bill of ›Mahagonny Songspiel‹ and ›Seven Deadly Sins‹. (I’m sure at that moment I wouldn’t have connected what I was hearing to Bobby Darin’s ›Mack the Knife‹, which of course everyone knew.) Then and there I decided I wanted to do a doctoral dissertation on this little known composer. For more than half a century I guess I’ve been sitting in theaters and concert halls around the globe, still captivated by the sonic world of Kurt Weill.

GF: What is your lonely island piece by Weill today?

KK: Weill would have shuddered at the thought that his music would ever be consigned to the »splendid isolation « of a desert island. But, if pressed, I would insist on two pieces: Stage work: ›Der Silbersee‹, which contains some of the most beautiful music he’s written. Orchestral: Mvt. II »Largo« from ›Fantaisie symphonique‹ (Symphony no. 2), which Nali has just recorded brilliantly with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.

GF: And which work would you recommend to someone, who knows only the »Mack the Knife« Weill?

KK: ›Die Buergschaft‹, his masterful three-act opera from 1932, wiped from the stage by the Nazis after just three productions. Lenya told Weill a year later that she »longed to hear ›Buergschaft‹ again—it would be like a purifying bath in the River Jordan or the Ganges«. Ninety years later, its final fatalistic pronouncement could have been written yesterday, so powerfully does it speak to our own time: »Everything is governed by one rule only: the rule of money, the rule of power.« It cries out for production today.