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THE FUTURE OF ORCHESTRAS — Part Five: Kurt Weill, El Paso, and the National Mood

“Wherever I found decency and humanity in the world, it reminded me of America.”

Kurt Weill wrote those words after returning from a visit to Germany in 1947. I read them aloud at least a dozen times during the Kurt Weill festival in El Paso last week. Every time I invited my listeners to consider whether or not they still apply.

Because Weill was an exemplary immigrant, he furnishes a singularly timely topic for the NEH-funded Music Unwound consortium I am fortunate to direct. “Kurt Weill’s America” has so far been produced at DePauw University and the Brevard Festival. It will travel to Chapel Hill and to Buffalo. But El Paso – a Mexican-American city on the Mexican border – is where we always knew it would most hit home.

Thanks to Music Unwound, El Paso hosts the closest collaboration between an orchestra, a university, and a community anywhere in the US. The orchestra is the El Paso Symphony and the university is the purest embodiment of the American Dream I know: the University of Texas/El Paso, known as UTEP. The vast majority of the students are local. Most are the first in their families to go to college. All high school graduates who apply are admitted. UTEP anchors El Paso.

The festival lasted seven days and included five concerts, three master classes, seven classroom presentations, and a visit to a semi-rural high school. Lots of questions are being asked these days about the relevance of orchestras to American communities. Those questions have been silenced in El Paso.

The first undergraduate UTEP class I visited was Selfa Chew’s “Afro-Mexican History.” She is herself Mexican/Chinese/Japanese, an authority on the fate of Japanese Mexicans during World War II. I told Weill’s story: a Jewish cantor’s son, born in 1900, he was the foremost German operatic composer of his generation. He fled Hitler and wound up in New York, where he re-invented himself as a leading Broadway composer before dying young in 1950. Weill considered himself an American from day one. He did not wish to consort with other German immigrants. He told Time Magazine: “Americans seem to be ashamed to appreciate things here. I’m not.”

The immediacy with which Professor Chew’s students engaged with this story was electrifying. One student asked with a trembling voice: how was Weill able to do it? She missed Mexico. Another wanted to know if Weill in America ever composed music that alluded to his German past. Not that I know of, I said. The students had me thinking  about Weill in new ways.

On Friday afternoon a UTEP Music “convocation” featured the El Paso Symphony’s exceptional guest soloists – William Sharp and Lisa Vroman – singing Weill. Bill sang “The Dirge for Two Veterans,” a patriotic setting of Walt Whitman in response to Pearl Harbor. I introduced this performance by screening FDR’s “day of infamy” speech, declaring war on Japan. Brian Yothers, from UTEP’s English faculty, gave a 10-minute talk on Whitman and why Weill would have found this iconic American a kindred spirit. Two UTEP vocalists sang “How Can You Tell an American?,” composed by Weill three years into his American period. The students keenly appreciated the song’s answer: you can’t tell Americans what to do.

I would call this presentation an exemplary humanities public program in miniature. When our 80 minutes expired, no one got up to leave. I am now accustomed to this kind of response in El Paso. The students are the hungriest I know. There is no sense of entitlement to get in the way.

Bill and Lisa sang and coached at UTEP throughout the week. Brian addressed three Music classes.

The central event was an EPSO subscription concert, given twice. The first half explored Weill in Europe; the main work was the Weill/Brecht Seven Deadly Sins (1933) with Lisa as both Annas. Part two was Weill in America: the four Whitman songs sung by Bill as a potent cycle; a Broadway medley to close. This was music as sanguine as Weill/Brecht is cheeky.

What was Weill about? We posed the question with a scripted exegesis and a continuous visual track. Here’s an excerpt, including Weill’s own voice and his 1938 song “Nowhere To Go But Up.” Our host and screen also allowed us to ambitiously contextualize the Whitman songs as an immigrant’s charged response to the bombing of the American fleet, and situate the sui generis Seven Deadly Sins – a work that can easily confound – within Weimar culture: its barbed aesthetics and politics; the  assaultive paintings of Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

After that came “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” – a joint presentation of UTEP’s Opera and Theatre programs. Cherry Duke, director of Opera UTEP, wrote in a program note: “With the prevalence of division, xenophobia and fear in today’s news, I was struck by similar themes in many of Weill’s works. He seems to ask the question: Who exactly is the stranger, the outsider, the exile?” Weill’s songs, and a chunk of his 1946 Broadway opera Street Scene, were interspersed with excerpts from Brecht’s Mother Courage, and from the 1929 Elmer Rice play upon which Street Scene the opera was based. These juxtapositions registered powerfully. Even more powerful was a recitation of “Let America be America Again” (1935) by Langston Hughes, who collaborated with Weill on Street Scene. It reads in part:

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be. . . .

(America never was America to me.)

. . .

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

The show began hypnotically, with a student clarinetist, Aaron Gomez,  performing his own solo version of “Speak Low,” a rendition that eloquently discovered Jewish/Yiddish roots.

The entire week was saturated by a density of discourse and inquiry about the American experience that relentlessly targeted the present moment.

I will never forget the testimony of a Jewish El Paso resident who remembered her childhood in Sioux Falls, where her father sold automobiles and supported the local NAACP. Her family had to house Harry Belafonte because no hotel would take him. Black workers were resented as outsiders. Anti-semitism was virulent. Her father’s favorite recordings included Weill’s anti-apartheid Lost in the Stars. He himself used to sing “September Song.” Only now, she told us, did she understand why.

I had my own “September Song” epiphany during my week in El Paso. It was and is one of Kurt Weill’s two most popular Broadway songs, the other being “Speak Low.” We heard Bill Sharp sing it – unforgettably – with the El Paso Symphony. The Hudson Shad – a one-of-a-kind male vocal quartet long associated with Weill – offered a doo-wop a cappella version of “Speak Low.” When a student named Jose, in Selfa Chew’s class, brought home to me the riddle that Weill in his American music never looked back, I recalled a conversation I once had with Lotte Lenya when I had the opportunity to interview her for the New York Times. She speculated that for Weill “never look back” was not only a strategy of renewal, but a way of suppressing intrusive memories, both good and bad. It cannot be a coincidence that both “September Song” and “Speak Low” course with a commanding nostalgia.

But it’s a long, long while from May to December

And the days grow short when you reach September

Weill was still a young man when he set those lyrics. Do not those signature Weill songs sublimate personal retrospection?

The quarterback for the El Paso Weill festival was Frank Candelaria, who as Associate Provost at UTEP has the vision and persistence to make big things happen. (Next fall, he becomes Dean of the Arts at SUNY Purchase.). Frank is an El Paso native, the first member of his family to obtain what is called “higher education” — Oberlin and Yale. He left a tenured position at UT/Austin to return to El Paso five years ago. He expected the Weill festival to catch fire in El Paso, but the intimacy with which it penetrated personal lives took him by surprise. On the final day he said to me: “I learned a lot about my own city and how strongly people identify as Americans.”

Which brings me to my final vignette. Once again a visit to Eastlake High School proved a humbling experience. It serves a semi-rural “colonia.” Of the school’s 2,200 predominantly Hispanic students, 69 per cent are “economically disadvantaged.” Frank and I visited Eastlake last year for “Copland and Mexico.” I described that visit in this space.

Again some 300 students were taken out of their classes for an hour-long assembly. When I entered the auditorium I was applauded – I was remembered. I spoke about Kurt Weill and immigration, I shared my clip of FDR declaring war, I played a recording of “Dirge for Two Veterans.” A girl raised her hand to tell us that she had wept twice during the song – the parts where Whitman and Weill describe moonlight overlooking the twin graves of the two Civil War soldiers, a father and son. Then I played a Frank Sinatra recording of “September Song,” after which the students requested another one. So I played Sinatra singing “Speak Low.”

Afterward, the East Lake Chorus asked to sing for me. They chose the “Star-Spangled Banner.”



  1. Peter Bogdanoff says

    You quote Lenya saying that Weill by asserting his new American-ness was also “suppressing intrusive memories, both good and bad.”

    When I was a kid with a small hand printing press, I printed a little newspaper around December which had an image of some kind and a caption, “Remember Pearl Harbor.” My father, who had been in the US Navy in WWII, saw it and said to me, “Forget Pearl Harbor.” I really never understood that until now–that was a traumatic event best left behind. Maybe the later optimism in the 1950s was partially a forgetting of the war years.

  2. The El Paso Symphony might have the highest ratio of Hispanics in the country. Still not as high as one might hope, but very promising.

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