26 April 2015

Preview: Collegiate Chorale Performs Weill’s ‘Road of Promise’

There may never have been a show as big as The Eternal Road, a retelling of ancient Jewish history conceived by Meyer Weisgal, composed by a cantor’s son named Kurt Weill, with a book by Franz Werfel. For the premiere production, in New York’s Manhattan Opera House in 1937, director Max Reinhardt tore out most of the theater’s interior to accommodate Normal Bel Geddes’ set design, which included an entire mountain dotted with multiple playing areas. This left no room for the musicians, so the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the score, accompanied in performance by a live 16-member ensemble — who were in another building and piped in by radio. The cast numbered some 245 performers, including Lotte Lenya, Kurt Kasznar, Sidney Lumet, and the very young Dick Van Patten. When performed complete the piece would run longer than any Wagner opera — though even in the original production, cuts were made and Weill never completed the orchestration for several portions of the score.

The sheer scale of the spectacle as originally conceived would be enough to discourage producers from reviving The Eternal Road, but history plays a part, too. Though Weisgal intended the show to call attention to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and to illustrate the resilience of the people in times of crisis, the creators couldn’t have anticipated the enormity of the Shoah. For a long time The Eternal Road seemed to some almost naïvely optimistic or somehow incomplete, rather than timeless. Yet the piece continued to exert a considerable fascination, not least because it brought Weill to America.

For Weill’s centennial, 63 years after the premiere, The Eternal Road was revived, in a restored edition under its original German title, Der Weg der Verheißung (The Road of Promise), seeing performances in Chemnitz, Tel Aviv, and Brooklyn. That edition’s mastermind, musicologist Ed Harsh, has adapted the piece as an oratorio: reducing the number of speaking roles, trimming the score, and eliminating the need for scenery and costumes, thus putting the work within the grasp of producers who may not be as wealthy as Pharaoh. And now the Collegiate Chorale will present the U.S. premiere of the oratorio, The Road of Promise, at Carnegie Hall May 6 and 7. With a cast that includes Anthony Dean Griffey, Mark Delavan, Philip Cutlip, and Ron Rifkin, this is an event of — well, there’s no better way to say this — monumental proportions.

Conductor and artistic director Sperling.

Indeed, says Ted Sperling, Road of Promise’s conductor and the artistic director of the Collegiate Chorale, “We’ll have 150 choristers, 8 soloists, and a fairly large orchestra, which includes organ and a rather large percussion battery. [The Eternal Road] was a pageant originally, a spectacle, and there will be an aspect of that, that will be respected.” Toward that end, artist Wendall Harrington has been engaged to create projected images “to bring the Bible stories to life visually as well as orally. It will be a little bit more than just a straight-ahead concert in that regard,” Sperling says.

Falling as it does between Weill’s European and American careers, “the musical language does feel to me like a transitional language, even though Kurt Weill probably had no idea what lay ahead,” Sperling says. The composer’s turn from “ernste Musik” toward popular theater music had begun only around 1927, and for all we know he might have drifted back toward the opera house and the concert hall to stay, if Hitler hadn’t come along: Weill had just written the operas Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Die Bürgschaft, as well as his Second Symphony shortly before he started Eternal Road.

“You can hear the promise of his Broadway material in this piece,” Sperling says, “even though the singing will be more operatic than Broadway, as befits the concert venue and the scale of the work. We’re not going to amplify the singing, so you need singers who can project over the orchestra. But there are arias in this that, with different texts, you can imagine in a Broadway show. At the same time there are big operatic moments. There are big double-chorus moments, with counterpoint back and forth. There are orchestral interludes, to illustrate what’s happening. And then there are scenes between the principal actors, which are spoken. So there’s a lot of variety in the piece.”

Werfel, Reinhardt, and Weill in Salzburg, circa 1935.
Photographer unknown.
Historical images courtesy of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.

The Weill Foundation (my former employer) asked Ed Harsh “to prepare a version that could live in the concert repertoire, so he selected what he thought were the strongest musical excerpts, and then kept the spine of the story, while reducing the number of characters significantly,” Sperling explains, retaining just the Rabbi, the 13-year-old Boy, and the Adversary, while “let[ting] the musical moments in between sort of take over.”

Having conducted in opera and on Broadway, Sperling has developed an enviable reputation for his comfort in works that don’t fit easily into the conventional “classical” or “show tune” categories. He started early in both worlds, playing violin in an orchestra, studying at Juilliard, and playing piano to accompany singers — “And then, like many kids who play an instrument or sing a little bit, I was drafted to be in school musicals. I played Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof in summer camp when I was six, before I knew what I was talking about!” Meanwhile, his grandmother, a singer and voice teacher, took him to the Metropolitan Opera, and his parents played cast albums at home and in the car.

At Yale, he continued to play in symphonies and work on musicals, and his best friend was Victoria Clark, the classically trained singer who’s become a Broadway star. After graduation, he worked with both Roger Nierenberg at the Stamford Symphony and Paul Gemignani on Broadway. “I was singing in church choirs on Sundays and going on a bus to Stamford to play in an orchestra, and then rehearsing Sunday in the Park with George the rest of the week.”

Moses slays the Egyptian taskmaster,
from The Eternal Road, 1937.
Photo by Lucas-Pritchard.

Broadway struck him as “a world where there was a hunger for new work … where people felt they were being treated well,” Sperling says. “I liked that on Broadway there were all these elements that had to come together, whereas in the classical world at that point, people were very suspicious of new work and not so excited about enjoying it.” This was precisely the conclusion that Weill himself came to when he moved to New York after Eternal Road.

Sperling has sought out opportunities to conduct Weill’s work, and The Firebrand of Florence served as his introduction to the Collegiate Chorale, after the death of Robert Bass: the concert was already scheduled, and Sperling knew the piece, having approached the Weill Foundation about it years before. Since then, Sperling and the Chorale have also presented Knickerbocker Holiday; he’s also stage-directed Lady in the Dark in Philadelphia. He’d love to do that show again, “and I’m eager to do Street Scene at some point, and Love Life. Then there are other pieces, like Railroads on Parade and The Lindbergh Flight. There’s still a lot more to go.” (Which, of course, is music to a Weill fan’s ears.)

Ultimately, what can we expect from The Road of Promise? “I think it would be fun to have an element of surprise,” Sperling says with a laugh. “I know people are looking forward to coming to this concert because they don’t know what they’re going to hear.”

Collegiate Chorale presents
Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise
Carnegie Hall
May 6 at 8:00
May 7 at 7:00
Click HERE for information and tickets.

End of the dance around the Golden Calf,
from The Eternal Road, 1937.
Photo by Richard Tucker.
(Probably not that Richard Tucker.)

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