Saturday 9 October 2021

If we continue to ignore these composers and their music then we are doing Hitler's work for him: I chat to Simon Wynberg about ARC Ensemble's Music in Exile series on Chandos

ARC Ensemble (Photo Nation Wong)
ARC Ensemble (Photo Nation Wong)

In September, the ARC Ensemble released a disc of chamber works by the Jewish-Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov (1907-1986). Klebanov was a casualty of Soviet-era cultural repression and anti-Semitism and the new disc, the fifth in the group’s Music in Exile series for Chandos, represents the first commercial recording of these Klebanov works. For each disc in the series, the ensemble has focused on a single composer, those who fled Europe in the 1930s to make a career elsewhere, and those whose music was suppressed by Soviet authorities. The ARC Ensemble is based at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada and I spoke to the ensemble's artistic director Simon Wynberg about Klebanov and the series Music in Exile.

Simon Wynberg
Simon Wynberg
Dmitri Klebanov is almost an unknown name in the West, though he is known about in Ukraine. Simon sees this as a result of Klebanov's Soviet-era problems when his music was firmly behind the Iron Curtain and much of it was suppressed. Simon originally came across Klebanov's music via a performance of his Symphony No. 1 online (in fact, Klebanov wrote nine symphonies). The performance was indifferent, but it triggered Simon's interest and he started reading. Klebanov's symphony received performances during 1946 and 1947, and it was well-received. The composer submitted it for a Stalin Prize; he had dedicated it to the victims of Babi Yar massacres (which took place in September 1941 during the Nazi era in Ukraine), but there were Jewish elements to the music and whilst the Soviet authorities were happy to celebrate the Soviet dead, the same could not be true of the Jewish dead. Simon read about this and wondered what the rest of Klebanov's music was like. Thanks to contacts in Moscow, he was able to get scans of Klebanov's music.

The result is a trio of chamber works recorded for the first time, String Quartet No. 4, Piano Trio No. 2, String Quartet No. 5. The works span some 20 years and Simon thinks you can see the way Klebanov's music changed over time. String Quartet No. 4 is the earliest work on the disc from 1945, in an accessible and likeable style with references to Ukrainian folk music. The Piano Trio, dating from some 10 years later, is a big-boned, romantic work and quite a step forward from the quartet. Then String Quartet No. 5 is more modern with hints of the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and a use of bitonality. It dates from the 1960s, and clearly, things were relaxed enough in the Soviet Union for Klebanov to feel he could write it, though it was not published until the 1970s.

A lot of Klebanov's earlier music was lost during World War Two, and as far as chamber music goes there is not that much more, though there are some violin sonatas. However, there are nine symphonies, two violin concertos, two piano concertos, shorter orchestral works and music for films; much of it is accessible and just needs someone to perform and recorded it. There are also over 100 songs, though most of these are still in manuscript.

Dmitri Klebanov
Dmitri Klebanov

The ARC Ensemble's Music in Exile series began by examining the music of composers who were in exile from Nazi Germany, who had left Europe in the 1930s to create careers elsewhere. Now the series has expanded to include Soviet-era composers, who were not physically in exile but whose music was suppressed, so this is not exile in a geographic sense but the music of exiles whether internal or external. Simon comments that we have no experience of this in the West, yet over so many years Soviet composers were restricted as to the styles and techniques that they could use in their music.

There is still a huge amount of music awaiting discovery so the ensemble is not short of ideas for future projects. Simon was able to use the time he had thanks to the pandemic to plan the next two or three years, so he has composers lined up. But the choice of work is a group affair, Simon emphasises that whilst he delivers the music to the ensemble, the players have to sign on to it and if they do not like a work then they move on. He refers to himself as the funnel through which the music runs, and it is important to get a thumbs up from the players.

Many of the composers who left Europe in the 1930s, mainly Jewish ones, were quite conservative in their language and often highly trained. Yet all have fascinating stories regarding their journey from Europe and their ability to maintain a career in their adopted country. This means that the music and the recordings are fascinating not just for the music's sake but for the back stories too. Listeners are entertained by the music and fascinated by the biographies. And once the music is out there, thanks to the Music in Exile series, Simon hopes that it will bring wider currency and cites an example of getting an email from Moscow looking for scores by the Czech-born American composer Walter Kaufmann (1907-1984), whose music formed ARC Ensemble's 4th Music in Exile disc. And in our wired age, it is easy enough for Simon to satisfy such requests, we have access to anything from anywhere.

The ARC Ensemble was founded 18 years ago and in initial purpose was to provide a vehicle to show off the talents of the professors at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Simon was asked by the then president of the Royal Conservatory to be the founding artistic director. The ensemble gave a few performances, but Simon advised that to gain traction the group had to have a particular raison d'etre rather than performing yet another Trout Quintet or Brahms Piano Quintet to compete with 100s of other recordings. Simon adds that, philosophically, he does not understand why we need so many 100s of recordings of major works.

Simon's background is as a musicologist, digging up obscure and unknown repertoire and it seemed a natural extension for the ARC Ensemble to explore less well-known 20th-century music. After all, music of the 18th and 19th centuries has been covered often in minute detail with many obscure composers already looked at. Simon finds it amazing that there are so many 20th century composers whose works are not known at all, usually for political reasons, and he wanted to look at all this music that was intended to be destroyed. He adds that if we continue to ignore these composers and their music then we are doing Hitler's work for him. He regards it as his duty to look at the material and to put the work out there.

In an ideal world, the ensemble would play the works for a year before recording them and Simon is certainly not a fan of the 1980s-style recording without any prior performances. The ARC Ensemble generally devotes an open rehearsal and a proper concert (which is usually broadcast) to works which they are planning to record.

The current line-up of the ensemble mixes professors at the Royal Conservatory with talented students. The conservatory has a fellowship which is given to top students which allows them time to work at the conservatory and establish relationships with professors, a sort of way-station from student-hood to full time professional and some of these students who play in the ensemble are often studying with professors in the ensemble. Part of the musical ethos is to open up to the younger generation a musical world that they might not otherwise experience.

Some of the material that they perform has been published, but for instance, Klebanov's quartets were published in the 1970s in score form, which means that they would have to generate parts for them. However, the ensemble largely performs from tablets rather than printed material which means that they can scan the scores and play from those. So that technical change has made things more practical and easier, and this also helps in rehearsal as playing from a score means that performers can see where everything is going.

Klebanov's String Quartet No. 5 is musically complex and technically difficult, but Simon would not characterise any of the music that they have performed in the series as easy to play and after all everything is demanding if you want to do a good job.

Dmitri Klebanov - ARC Ensemble - Chandos
Simon's role with the ensemble began as a part-time job, but now it has begun to occupy a huge amount of his time despite having people at the conservatory who look after the marketing and act as general manager. But the research takes his time, finding out about a composer is a significant task, as he dives into composers' lives, getting an idea of the background, circumstances and who they knew. This is particularly true when he bumps into a composer's living relatives. So for instance, when planning the Klebanov disc, Simon was in contact with the composer's son Yuri (who died in Moscow in March 2020). Simon had many exchanges with Yuri who provided both scores and anecdotes about his father, including copies of notes from Shostakovich to the Klebanov, and Klebanov's participation in a Summer composition camp which involved Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Such information opens up all sorts of images and questions. Though Yuri Klebanov never heard the final disc, he was thrilled at the idea of it coming out and Simon had been able to send him a recording of the ensemble's 2019 concert when they played Yuri's father's music.

With many of the composers in the Music in Exile series, Simon would like to do more. The series is based around a single composer disc, which Simon feels is a great way of doing it as it allows you to bring focus and shape to a programme. But with a composer like Walter Kaufmann, there is so much more, and Simon hopes that eventually, they might be able to return to some composers. But the key point is to get composers' music into the real world, and Simon hopes that their efforts will inspire others.

Looking ahead he has a Sephardic Jew from Izmir in his sights, who trained in Milan and travelled to Paris, a quintessential exile, as well as a German émigré to the UK.

Chamber works by Dmitri Klebanov - ARC Ensemble (Erika Raum & Marie Bérard, violin, Steven Dann, viola, Thomas Wiebe, cello, Kevin Ahfat, piano) - Music in Exile on Chandos 

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