Swans Commentary » swans.com May 5, 2008  



Jay Greenberg: A Korngold For Our Times


by Isidor Saslav





May 5, 2008   It's not every day that the world premiere of an extended work of classical music by a nationally recognized composer takes place in, of all places, Tyler, Texas. Well, we had such a premiere in that very city on April 26th when The Eroica Trio (Susie Park, violin, Sara Sant'Ambrogio, cello, Erika Nickrenz, piano) ably assisted by Per Brevig leading the East Texas Symphony Orchestra presented for the first time Jay Greenberg's Triple Concerto for Violin, 'Cello, Piano, and Orchestra.

An article about Jay Greenberg, now 17 years old and already having written five full symphonies, usually leads off by comparing him to Mozart. But what we heard the other afternoon (we could hear only the dress rehearsal) leads us to compare him to an equally gifted 17-year-old, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), a composer a century or so closer to us in time than the 18th-century composer after whom he was named ("Wolfgang"). The lustrous, assured, and colorful orchestral sonorities that our most recent prodigy paraded before us reminded us inevitably of many a Hollywood screen enlivened for us by his celebrated Vienna-via-California predecessor. Indeed, the pictoriality of his music was stressed to us by Greenberg himself in his own program notes. There he described the first movement as pastoral, the second as a bustling cityscape, and the third as having the majesty of mountains. Having heard the music I agree. I predict a successful screen future for Greenberg should he decide to pursue that route.

I had never before heard a note of Greenberg's music (and now that I have I wouldn't mind hearing more). And the buzz surrounding his status as our most recent composer-prodigy had only recently reached my ears. My curiosity was aroused, especially since this premiere was to take place only 25 miles from my own home in Overton, Texas.

Imagine yourself as a musical prodigy who had started studying the 'cello at three, later expanding your skills by teaching yourself the piano, a bit later the violin and other instruments, enrolled at Juilliard by age 10, and studying composition with one of the American deans of that craft, Samuel Adler. You lived in this, our own day, in which the entire history of music was laid out to you and available in reproducible form, from Hildegarde von Bingen to Philip Glass, et al. Which compositional style do you choose to express yourself in? Greenberg reflected to me on his style and said that he had learned much from Adler.

So what kind of style is it? Thanks to whatever deities there may be in the great beyond, there is a hint neither of 12-tonism nor of minimalism in it and for this we are grateful. Neither of these two 20th-century fads/fashions seems to have captured Greenberg's soul. The Greenberg soul reflects, perhaps not so surprisingly, his Jewish roots. Indeed, the second movement of the concerto, with its hustle and bustle in triple meters, reminded me strongly of the scherzo of the D Minor Trio by still another of those teenage prodigies, probably the greatest of them all, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). By the time Mendelssohn was 16 he had written what is to my mind the greatest composition ever written by a composer of that age, the Octet. The Octet was actually Mendelssohn's 13th symphony. He had preceded it with the 12 string symphonies he had written between the ages of 14-15. With those works he had honed his craft in preparation for his grand leap into the ecstatic transcendence of the Octet.

The Greenberg roots came even more strongly to the fore in the third movement, a passacaglia. When I heard the rising upbeat of a perfect 4th in slow triple time there irresistibly leaped to my mind the music from another saga of Judaic roots, the movie Exodus (1960). This music and its ever-popular theme were written by still another Viennese transplanted to Hollywood, Ernest Gold (1921-1999). The concerto's Judaism had begun to reflect itself already in the second movement. Besides the similarities to the Mendelssohn, vigorous dance-like episodes in Hora style had stirred us up.

The first movement began with something not often to be found in modern classical music: a tune one could actually remember and even sing and even enjoy singing. It was good that we could remember it because it came back cyclically in the last movement in and to true Romantic style and effect. The opening reminded me of the similarly wistful and lyrical opening of Prokofieff's first violin concerto. And the music's continuation in often modal style took one back to another Jewish-American concerto, the violin concerto by Ernest Bloch. But perhaps it was another American from whom Greenberg seemed to have drawn the most inspiration, the similarly lyrical and harmonically individual Samuel Barber. (Barber in turn seems to have drawn his style from an earlier American, specifically from the piano sonata of Charles Tomlinson Griffes [1920].)

Greenberg's orchestration was always colorful, often brash and subdued, as well as aggressive and thoughtful by turns, and called upon all sections of the orchestra to full effect and dynamic range. The soloists were all treated well to show off their bravura skills in various folk styles. And they did, in their accustomed masterly style. In short, this was the work of a composer fully in command of the forces he knew how to wield to maximum and satisfying effect. And still just 16 years old (when he actually wrote the work). He is already quite tall. He had been sitting in the front row during the rehearsal and as I approached him to compliment him on his work he was still making penciled corrections in the large score on his lap.

But an article about talented 16-year-olds cannot leave out still another of the breed, the incomparably masterful 16-year-old George Szell. (Yes, that George Szell, the conductor.) I was privileged to have been present at the concert of the American Symphony Orchestra on February 9, 2007, at Lincoln Center when the greatest program builder in the world, Leon Botstein, revived and conducted Szell's Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (1913). Such unimaginably beautiful music! It was as if the Max Reger of the Mozart Variations (Szell's teacher) and the Richard Strauss of Der Rosenkavalier (later Szell's mentor in Berlin) had sat down and composed a piece together. Like Greenberg, the teenaged Szell too had received a long term contract with the most prestigious publishing house of his time. What the world lost when Szell gave up his career as a composer shortly afterward!

Per Brevig, former principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and still on the faculties at Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and at Aspen (besides being the founder and president of the Edvard Grieg Society of New York) has led the ETSO for a number of seasons now and has created full satisfaction between orchestra and public. And there's more to the musical history of Tyler. The orchestra was founded by the late Joseph Kirschbaum some 64 years ago. Kirschbaum's more recent claim to fame is his being the father of world-renowned cellist Ralph Kirschbaum, now resident in the United Kingdom who revisits and performs in his old home town now and then in between international tours and inspires the local forces with some generous scholarship help. Tyler is still turning out some outstanding young string players who are making their way through various prestigious music schools and from whom we should hear more of not too long from now.


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About the Author

Isidor Saslav on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 5, 2008