Arnold Schoenberg, Bayreuth Festival, Bertolt Brecht, Chasen's Restaurant, Georg Eisler, Hanns Eisler, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Stein, Otto Klemperer, Patrice Chereau, Pierre Boulez, Roland Berger, Vienna Philharmonic
“Am I boring you?”
I was 22 years old in September of 1977. I had dreamed and worked and worked and dreamed of studying music in Vienna. At the time I played the French horn, which I retired in 1998 to devote myself to conducting. But for 25 years or more the horn was my voice, my love, my sound. And the person who had the greatest sound in the world was in Vienna, Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic. All that money washing dishes in my parents’ restaurant was beginning to pay off.
However as I now look back, one man took me under his wing, guided me, encouraged me, talked to me, questioned me. And I know that I learned as much, if not more, from renowned Austrian painter Georg Eisler than any musical mentor I would encounter. His father, composer Hanns Eisler, was nominated for two Academy Awards in the 1940s. Somewhat more ominously, Hanns was the prime target of Richard Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee, known as HUAC.
“Am I boring you?”
HUAC blinded my country with the false hope that communism could be stopped. Maybe I didn’t see it coming in Vienna that afternoon in 1977, but in fact Georg Eisler became a first person singular influence on my belief that HUAC took the U.S. down the dirt road of stopping communism in Vietnam. America would learn the hard way that a hope is not a military strategy. We still struggle with the aftermath.
I had studied music theory at the University of Southern California with Leonard Stein, Arnold Schoenberg’s assistant. Having first heard Leonard at a pre-concert talk at the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Alfred Brendel discussing Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, I knew he would be the greatest teacher possible. He was. And because of Leonard I still have no idea why people demonize Schoenberg’s music.
Another big influence was Clara Steuermann, the widow of legendary pianist Eduard Steuermann, who taught Brendel, and Brendel would stay with Leonard when in Los Angeles. Her “lallapalooza” letters of encouragement were perfect for cloudy and gray Viennese winter days. Like the perfect aunt, she helped me with numerous Viennese introductions, some quite spectacular.
As in Frau Margaret Prohaska, who owned the villa in Hietzing where Johann Strauss, Jr. had composed his operetta Die Fledermaus. Frau Prohaska also threw the 60th birthday party for Anton Webern. She declared Webern the kindest human being she’d ever met. And when she mentioned Webern had given his lectures On the Path to New Music here, she slammed her fist onto the table. She meant literally at the table where we were having tea. Quite a place to spend a few nights in Vienna!
A bit of background is in order. I had organized performances of Schoenberg’s monumental Wind Quintet, Op. 26 for the opening of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC in February of 1976. I turned to Leonard by necessity for help, as not a single faculty member of the University was supportive of my enthusiasm for Schoenberg. In fact their hostility was breathtaking. But with Leonard’s encouragement our youthful performance was guided to excellence, at least according to Pierre Boulez, who was sitting in the front row with Rudolf Kolisch, H.H. Stuckenschmidt and the entire Schoenberg family.
“Am I boring you?”
When I discovered the above photo of Georg in his studio on the internet, I had a torrent of memories coupled with a wonderful surprise. On many trips to this studio, he’d take me through this very stand holding his work, showing me drawings and sketches in various states of construction. Finding this photo made a distant, almost forgotten memory seem not so far away.
I had also met Eisler in 1976 in Los Angeles, like any student meets a visiting artist at a university. Short and sweet and with a handshake. He’d been talking about Schoenberg’s paintings and was mesmerizing. Leonard and Clara had urged me to get in touch with him when I got to Vienna. I wrote him upon arrival and he called me immediately to set up a first meeting.
As I entered his studio for the first time, climbing a long flight of stairs, he met me at his studio door and welcomed me in. There were numerous statues by his friend Alberto Giacometti in his studio, as well as a modest Henry Moore. The smell of oil paint was everywhere, with canvases in various degrees of completion. He smoked a very strong cigar-like cigarette and had a gravelly voice that was both prosecutor and defendant rolled into one. He’d studied painting with Oskar Kokoschka. His father had been nominated for two Academy Awards and worked closely with Bertolt Brecht. I was intimidated and inspired simultaneously.
I still remember that first visit very clearly. After a few introductory questions and an inspiring declaration of his great love of music, Georg pulled out a few files of costume and set designs for Mozart’s Die Zauberfloete, or The Magic Flute. I asked Georg if he’d designed often for opera.
“No, I’ve been spoiled for life! In the early 60s Otto Klemperer asked me to design sets and costumes for his production at Covent Garden of Zauberfloete. Working with anyone else was not possible or attractive, he was such a gigantic figure, so once was enough. Perhaps you’d like to take a look?”
Out came the sketches for a legendary performance. Each character and scene design in tremendous detail. There was a recorded performance of this production I already enjoyed immensely. That EMI recording with the Philharmonia in London remains a high mark of Mozart performance, with an unrivaled cast and the startling debut of Lucia Popp as the Queen of the Night. Georg testified that Klemperer had reached a point where the cast needed to be virtually perfect for him to agree to a performance or recording.
“With Klemperer there was absolutely NO SHOW. The music was allowed, it was forced, to speak for itself. Absolutely NO SHOW.”
No surprise that I’ve recently returned to many of Klemperer’s recorded performances. Old, granitic, experienced, committed, impartial and no nonsense musicianship we might not hear again. And another way for me to hear Georg’s voice in my inner ear every time I listen.
“I always have a deep problem here in Vienna,” continued Georg. “I am obligated to hear Leonard Bernstein when he is with the Philharmonic. After all, he led the defense for my father during HUAC, along with Aaron Copland. Stravinksy donated a benefit concert in Los Angeles to help with legal fees. One needs to pay one”s respect.”
“So I am obligated,” Georg continued, “to show my face, as it were, torn between my genuine gratitude for Bernstein’s support of my father and a somewhat abhorrent reaction to his podium manner, especially after Klemperer. But if I close my eyes, things are all right!”
He tipped his cigarette in an ashtray, uttering a sentence that changed my life.
“Am I boring you?”
After all these years I remain stunned at his remark – an impressive artist wondering if his tremendous stories are of interest to a young 22 year old music student? Was he kidding me?
He was not kidding. There were no big personalities in Georg’s worldview. He taught me to always consider the other person in any conversation. It was fine my mother was a waitress from zero family background. And the more I study his father’s best friend, Bertolt Brecht, the more I realize (in retrospect for I was not aware of many things at the time) that Georg represented a living tradition of social consciousness, of relevance to society through art. And he was passing this on to me as a young music student in Vienna. Perhaps I digress but I realize now he prepared the ground for my deep love of the Mexican Muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. Or my perceptions of French colonialism in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
My apprenticeship was definitely underway that afternoon in Vienna.
Before I left Los Angeles for my Viennese studies, I met with Leonard Stein in his office to ask for his advice. His persistent recommendation for me was to contact Pierre Boulez and follow up on being introduced to him at the opening of the Schoenberg Institute. Leonard urged me to ask Boulez if I could attend rehearsals of his Wagner Ring production at Bayreuth. With Patrice Chereau as his stage director the two arguably produced one of the greatest Ring productions of all time. A major achievement for the major avatar of new music.
I had Boulez’s address from Leonard but was honestly afraid to write to him. I felt all of 22, inexperienced and that I probably wouldn’t even get a response. But I did do something smart with my apprehension. I told Georg Eisler how I felt about contacting Boulez.
“My dear, you don’t know how these things work. Absolutely go home this afternoon and write him your request. You see, you’re recommended to him from a very good friend, Leonard Stein. Now, there is no way he will allow himself to ignore the recommendation of a trusted friend. Their next meeting would be supremely awkward ‘Pierre, why didn’t you answer my student?‘ is an untenable question for him to receive from Leonard. It is simply unthinkable to turn a young person away who is, so to speak, in the door in the right way. Why do you think you are here with me?” His question was like a Brechtian placard hoisted above the conversation. “You’ll hear from him within three weeks.”
He was almost right. Boulez got back to me in two weeks. I’ve never looked back from that day and that advice.
We then left the apartment and Georg took me into a Viennese market, recommending Quargl cheese, an acquired taste that is best with thick rye bread and butter. Georg knew I was a student on a budget and that an economical meal would be a good thing. From Klemperer designs and anecdotes to HUAC and Bernstein to life advice to cheese in one afternoon. The first of many encounters with Georg that would eventually come full circle years later in Los Angeles. And just remember, my wife Jan’s first love is theatre, so there were many opportunities for Brecht questions over the years, rest assured.
My mom, a common sense American who made a living as a waitress in Hollywood, was no stranger to important personalities. She helped me a lot that day meeting Eisler, even if I didn’t know it at 22. I was beginning to grow up in Vienna, but needed to translate her experience in Hollywood to my chosen profession.
With her many years in Hollywood, my mom prepared me how to act around imposing people. I listened to her loud and clear. Working at 20th Century Fox, The House of Murphy, Burbank Studios and Chasen’s, she’d seen all of Golden Era Hollywood.
She told me she never waited on Rick from Casablanca, but on Humphrey Bogart. Big difference. And of all her high points, when Bogart and Bacall requested her as the only server for their Hollywood wedding reception at Chasen’s, they hands down created mom’s career zenith. Nothing else came close. I’ll have an interesting Old Hollywood post soon, after scanning some wonderful family photos.
Because Old Vienna and Old Hollywood were connected in numerous ways. Escaping Hitler was common ground for a generation of exiles that would include Schoenberg, Eisler, Mann, Klemperer, Huxley, Isherwood, Galka Scheyer, the list is impressive and goes on and on.
Many years later and after Jan was in my life, Georg and his lovely wife Alice came to Los Angeles for a visit. We had met in Vienna for a wonderful reunion and Georg was thrilled to meet Jan. We always stayed in touch and he was very curious to visit my father’s restaurant at 2601 West Sixth Street in Los Angeles. It was a downstairs restaurant and bar that had a back room deal atmosphere.
Eisler’s father had enjoyed The Brown Derby, which somehow an idiot developer tore down, but Georg was looking for a Hollywood memory.
Jan and I both remember our lunch with Georg and Alice that day, my mom and dad being wonderful hosts that afternoon. We talked away the day. Georg later admitted to us he and Alice liked the meal and atmosphere so much they returned a second time to quietly dream of a time long gone for his father. A time before HUAC, when his father was happy in Los Angeles and safe from Hitler. I treasure a phone call he placed before returning to Vienna.
“Jeff, thank you so much. I could more easily see my father’s life here in Hollywood at your parents’ restaurant than any place I can imagine. It’s been fantastic to touch that. Alles gute.”
As I look back at my apprenticeship in Vienna, as I scan old photos to illustrate these stories and anecdotes, I realize that I saw a great many things that are of interest, in particular now to young musicians. Studying with Roland Berger in the Vienna Philharmonic, auditing an entire season of the Vienna State Opera House, meeting Leonard Bernstein on the stage of the Musikverein while he worked on all the Beethoven symphonies, attending all the rehearsals in Bayreuth for Wagner’s Ring with Pierre Boulez and how all of this meshes with my home of Los Angeles. And continues to inform the next LA International New Music Festival.
If I had youthful anticipation visiting Georg Eisler on Bechardgasse, I developed out and out intimidation going into this Jugendstil apartment by Otto Wagner on Koestlergasse in Vienna. Talk about atmosphere. This was the location for my lessons with Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic. The entrance to his apartment was up the street on the right side of the photo, past the second parked red car. And when he was to busy for lessons, he allowed me to audit the Vienna State Opera performances, which became my home away from home. Birgit Nilsson, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Karl Boehm, Gwyneth Jones, Lucia Popp for starters. It was the best way to learn, that’s for sure.
I’ll continue these Viennese experiences with more posts soon and I hope you’ll find them of interest.
“Am I boring you?”
Best, best, best,