- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Austrian Embassy’s spacious main hall was virtually filled to capacity Friday night for a tribute to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a major 20th-century composer who was nearly forgotten because of the twin sins of being a Jew and refusing to knuckle under to the atonal zeitgeist so favored by academics and Western leftist ideologues over the past century.

If Mr. Korngold isn’t a household name, it’s no wonder; he never fit into any of classical music’s meticulously defined niches. Born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1897, the composer always regarded himself as Austrian. His father was a famous and influential Viennese music critic who waged an ultimately futile one-man crusade against the increasing serial cacophony — championed by Arnold Schonberg and the Second Viennese School — that embraced atonality as the wave of the future.

Mr. Korngold was a child prodigy who composed mind-bogglingly complex pieces before he was 10. Famous musicians including Bruno Walter came to hear performances of his works when he was barely an adolescent.

Mr. Korngold’s early operas were quite successful, but he achieved his greatest success in a genre that didn’t exist when he was born. Almost by accident, the composer became the founding father of the symphonic film score.

His brilliant arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s suite for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for a live production of Shakespeare’s play in the Hollywood Bowl attracted the attention of movie mogul Jack Warner, who promptly signed him to pen the music for “Captain Blood” (1935), for which he copped an Oscar. He won another for “Robin Hood” (1938), one of many other film scores he composed for Warner Bros.

The secret to Mr. Korngold’s success as a film composer was his simple but profound insight that major films were epic in scope, requiring near operatic musical scoring to produce the desired effect. It was a lesson not lost on later composers Miklos Rozsa (“Spartacus”) and John Williams, whose scores to the “Star Wars” films — including this spring’s upcoming prequel — are sweeping in their mythic vision.

Unfortunately, in spite of Mr. Korngold’s brilliant insights, he died largely forgotten in 1957 in Hollywood — seemingly an anachronism in a classical music world where popular success was disdained and listenable music was regarded as a hopelessly outmoded concept.

Emceed by pianist and conductor Alexander Frey, who provided biographical background and film clips to give context for the composer’s works, Friday’s concert was a real eye-opener, revealing this underrated master as the tonal modernist and visionary he really was.

Perhaps the most astounding instrumental piece on the program was the composer’s first formal opus, his Piano Trio in D Major, composed when he was just 12.

Skirting the edge of tonality and fiendishly difficult to play, the trio possesses a musical sophistication almost light-years beyond adulthood. Its rich harmonies and daring episodes call to mind Richard Strauss at his most piquant and Alexander Scriabin at his most mystical.

The Mendelssohn Trio gave the work a rousing reading, although pianist Ya-Ting Chang, playing the Austrian Embassy’s magnificent Bosendorfer piano, overwhelmed the strings at times with her enthusiasm.

Mr. Frey himself gave admirable interpretations of “Don Quixote” and “Marchenbilder” (“Fairy-Tale Pictures”), two more early piano works by the composer. Soprano Monica Yunus offered a winsome reading of the composer’s “Drei Lieder” (“Three Songs”), Op. 22. And soprano Cristina Nassif gave spirited performances of “Marietta’s Song” from Mr. Korngold’s famous, and now frequently revived, opera “Die Tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”), Op. 12, as well as brilliantly suggestive renditions of his sprightly “Shakespeare Songs,” Op. 29 and 31.

The nearly three-hour program concluded with “Tomorrow,” a Korngold tone poem extracted from the 1943 film “The Constant Nymph,” which was sung by Embassy Series impresario Jerome Barry. He was accompanied by Mr. Frey, who improvised from Mr. Korngold’s holograph orchestral score, providing a fitting conclusion to this exceptional musical evening.

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