Sunday, November 9, 2008

Traumatic Art

Music in Exile: Émigré Composers of the 1930s
November 9-13, 2008
Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place

Rubinek in Neikrug's Through Roses (photo: James Hoffman, UrbanHanded Works, Inc.)
Actor Saul Rubinek–familiar from his many New York stage roles and movie and TV appearances (Wall Street, Unforgiven, Frasier, Curb Your Enthusiasm)–plays the challenging lead part in Through Roses, a devastating 50-minute drama about an elderly violinist who once played for his fellow concentration camp victims.

Marc Neikrug’s music-drama–which premiered in New York in 1981 at the 92nd Street Y, which commissioned it–will be performed November 13 as the final event of the five-night series Music in Exile: Émigré Composers of the 1930s at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which includes concerts of music by composers who either left Germany or were interned in Nazi death camps.

Rubinek spoke about Neikrug’s unique work while rehearsing for a performance of Through Roses in Toronto.

Kevin Filipski: Describe how you came to perform Through Roses.
Saul Rubinek: I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first heard about it in 2006. The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto wanted me to do a piece as a narrator with musicians for a radio broadcast. I really was very busy at the time, so I said sure, send me the material. I must admit that, when I said yes, I thought it was like Peter and the Wolf, where I would read the narration and the musicians would play, so I wouldn’t have to prepare much. I was completely wrong–I realized that he’s a character who has a fragmented, puzzle-like, stream-of-consciousness monologue scored by eight musicians that are in his mind, since he played at Auschwitz and can no longer play the violin. The music is atonal, similar to a movie score, with fragmented pieces and snatches of Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, and others.

KF: Was it more difficult to prepare for this than your other stage work?

SR: I called Marc Neikrug, the composer, hoping to change things. I didn’t want to play him as much older. But, to my horror, he was collaborative and open, so I was screwed–I had to do it. I was flabbergasted by its complexity–which nobody really talked about. There were only a couple of rehearsals, and there are 90 music cues: the musicians perform and I act to their cues, not vice versa. That’s 90 cues in 50 minutes, so I was lucky I could assimilate everything quickly. I’ve done one-man shows before, but nothing like this. Performing with eight musicians to a libretto meant I had to memorize this atonal score–and I don’t read music all that well.

KF: How much of your own life or that of your family informs your performance?
SR: My parents were Holocaust survivors, but they weren’t concentration camp survivors–but they were always very open about their experiences, so I am connected to this story in that way, and I’m sure it plays a part in my doing it. But I think it’s less than imagining what it’s like to lose an instrument–like an actor losing his body–because of a trauma. I think it’s less a piece about the Holocaust than a piece about an artist and his instrument, what he was forced to do with it, so I relate to it that way. Every time I do it it’s different–I’ve done it four times, with the fifth time here in Toronto and the sixth time next in New York. Different musicians, different theaters and different audiences–I learn something new every time I do it, and it’s unique in its own way.

KF: Through Roses is being performed as part of Music in Exile, which features music by composers displaced–or worse–during the Nazi regime. Do you know any of this music?
SR: When I first was introduced to this series two years ago, I went to the concerts since I was really curious about these composers that I never heard before. It’s a very moving series of concerts of music that’s rarely been heard. These people’s voices were lost because they lost their roots–not everybody turned into Kurt Weill. Thematically, somebody exiled from his instrument and somebody exiled from his country are related. It’s great that this music can be heard live–not only a revival but a redemption, in the face of people who tried to kill this art.

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