MONTREAL — A “Jewish” orchestra from Germany devoted to reviving the music of composers who were victims of the Holocaust makes its Canadian premiere – and plays Wagner.
“I like to provoke people,” said Daniel Grossmann, founder, artistic director and conductor of the Jakobsplatz Orchestra, based in Munich, where he was born in 1978.
Jakobsplatz gave a concert at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Bourgie Hall on Oct. 23 to a sold-out audience, the last stop on the chamber orchestra’s first North American tour. It had earlier performed at colleges in Maine and Kansas, and at New York’s Symphony Space on the Upper West Side.
At the first three venues, the youthful orchestra drew from its signature repertoire: classical pieces by Erwin Schulhoff and Gideon Klein, both brilliant Czech composers who died in the camps, as well as earlier Jewish greats such as Mendelssohn and Mahler.
Grossmann, the son of Hungarian immigrants and grandson of Holocaust survivors, changed the program in Montreal at the request of the museum, he said, but he also welcomed the chance to play Wagner.
The museum’s current exhibition Splendore a Venezia celebrates the golden age of the city-state in art and music. Venice led Grossman to think of Richard Wagner, whom he loathes as a person, but whose music he adores.
Wagner lived in Venice for some years and died there, and this year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.
The program began with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Wesendonck Lieder, followed by adagios by Venetian-born baroque composer Albinoni and Mahler, whose music is feature in the film adaptation of German author Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice. The concert was under the auspices of the German consulate general.
Playing Wagner is something Grossman and his orchestra, which he founded in 2005, cannot do in Germany, and that irks him.
The day before the concert, Grossman appeared at a public talk on the state of Jewish culture in Germany today with Concordia University anthropology and history professor Erica Lehrer, an expert in the renewed interest in Jewish culture in Europe.
Grossmann disclosed that three days earlier, his request to play Wagner at the Munich Jewish Community Centre, where the orchestra is based, was turned down, even though he had proposed including quotes from the composer’s anti-Semitic pamphlets in the program.
The orchestra is independent from the centre, he added later. (Jakobsplatz is the name of the centrally located public square in Munich where the centre opened in 2006.)
Grossmann believes the interdiction is misguided, and, at least partly, based on the German Jewish community’s solidarity with Israel, where there is an understanding that Wagner not be performed.
He feels that playing Wagner provokes audiences – and almost all of his orchestra’s listeners are non-Jews – “to think about the person of Wagner” and his contradictions. Grossmann agrees that Wagner the man was more than a hater of Jews – his writing “maybe was the starting point of Hitler…”
“I love his music, but on the other hand, he was a horrible man. People say they hate his music, but I don’t believe them,” Grossmann said.
“I understand they have bad feelings, but it’s not a solution to say the music was bad. He was a genius.”
The Jakobsplatz Orchestra is a bit of paradox. While Grossmann refers to it as a “German Jewish institution,” perhaps as few as 10 per cent of its 24 members are Jewish (he claims not to know their religion) and come from 14 countries. That is due to the lack of young German Jewish classical musicians, he said.
Grossmann also walks a fine line in defining its purpose. While it does specialize in the music of Jewish Holocaust victims, he is adamant that the goal is not to memorialize them.
“If we give a concert commemorating a composer who did not survive the Holocaust, everyone will be very upset and say ‘poor man.’ I don’t want people to be sad; I want them to enjoy the music without thinking about the Holocaust. Most of the music was written before the Holocaust… I think this is what the composers would want,” he said.
“Just remembering and remembering, that’s dead… The idea is to have a German-Jewish institution that is not about remembering the Holocaust… that we are a Jewish institution to which everyone is invited to be a part.”
His sole criterion in choosing music is how good it is, not the composer’s fate. He wants to ensure that wonderful, yet often neglected, compositions take their place in the history of music, nothing more.
“I would never play a bad piece by a composer who died in Auschwitz,” Grossmann said.
With his musicians, he says, he never discusses the background of the composer. “They just work on the music, playing it the best they can… They are professionals.”
Germany, he said, was “not such a bad place” to grow up as Jew of his generation. He always found his contemporaries interested and respectful of his background, and the orchestra has received nothing but a favourable reception from the German public and media.