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The Music of Karol Rauthus Rediscovered by Orchestra Now

Daniel Wnukowski, photo by Claudia Zadory
On the afternoon of Sunday, February 24th, at the Lefrak Concert Hall at Queens College, I attended a notable program—featuring the impressive artists of The Orchestra Now, under the direction of Leon Botstein—devoted to the music of the lesser-known composer, Karol Rathaus, as part of a festival dedicated to his work, sponsored by the Aaron Copland School of Music, the Queens College Center for Jewish Studies, and the American Society for Jewish Music.
Rathaus was a student of Franz Schreker who became the first Professor of Composition at Queens College. The festival featured chamber music, a couple of talks, as well as a screening at Film Forum of the 1936 film version of Broken Blossoms—by the still underrated director, John Brahm—for which Rathaus composed the score. (According to a note in the program, the great Bernard Herrmann commented that the music Rathaus had composed for the 1931 film, Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff, was “the first full film score.”)
The concert I heard opened promisingly with the New York premiere of The Louisville Prelude, which was commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra but “never performed in the United States after its initial premiere in 1954.” The piece began evocatively and plaintively, although eventually became more agitated and concluded abruptly. The interesting instrumental texture included employment of the piano.
Soloist Daniel Wnukowski then took the stage for the composer’s spikier Piano Concerto, a more self-conscious expression of High Modernism, “last performed 34 years ago in 1984 by the Queens College Orchestral Society.” The moody first movement was by turns introspective and turbulent, while the second was even more inward, if no less emotional. The closing movement was perhaps the most tempestuous of all, which, for all its volatility, ended not without a note of triumph. As an encore, the pianist graciously performed an arrangement by Egon Petri of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” which was a highlight of the afternoon.
The second half of the concert started with what was by far the most pleasurable and accessible work on the program, the world premiere of Russian-Israeli composer Ariel Davydov’s arrangement of the colorful and charming Merchant of Venice Suite, “incidental music composed for the performance of the play by Habima (now The National Theater of Israel), which took place in 1936 in Palestine.” The fourth movement, entitled Prince of Morocco, was especially memorable for its bewitching exoticism.
The event concluded with an accomplished account of the U.S. premiere of the imposing Symphony No. 2, which “was premiered at a Frankfurt Festival of New Music in 1924 together with excerpts from Alban Berg’s opera "Wozzeck.” An unfavorable reception led Rathaus to withdraw the work and it was not performed again until 2002 by the Frankfurt Brandenburg State Orchestra. The organizers of this festival deserve praise for securing the realization of a program of such unfamiliar repertory.

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