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The Power of the 'Roses'

Marc Neikrug's chamber opera 'Through Roses'--live and in a new film version--explores music, memory and the cost of surviving the Holocaust.

August 17, 1997|Ken Smith | Ken Smith is a music writer based in New York

SANTA FE, N.M. — The audience for the early showing of Marc Neikrug's "Through Roses" began leaving quietly during the credits. The 8 p.m. audience started applauding at the end, but those who approached the work's creator afterward mostly fell into an awkward silence.

"[One friend] came up, but said he'd have to call me later," Neikrug, 50, said the morning after the film's North American premiere at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. "A lot of people just wanted to touch me, to make some kind of connection. One man came to the 6 o'clock showing, went home to meditate for two hours, then came to the reception."

For Neikrug, who had never before seen the screen version of "Through Roses" in the company of others, the silence was music to his ears.

"This has been an old dream of mine," said the Santa Fe-based pianist and composer, "to make an emotionally powerful film with real music that can stand up to what's happening visually. It's comforting that the piece still retains that effect for an audience. I knew it would--I always knew it would--but sometimes you listen too much to people in the business."

Neikrug's concern seems rather ironic, considering how much people in "the business" actually listened to him. "Through Roses," a portrayal of a tormented concentration camp surivor, remains a rare, if not unique, piece of filmmaking in which a composer called the shots from its inception.

The film, directed by Jurgen Flimm and starring Maximilian Schell, makes its West Coast premiere Wednesday at the La Jolla Chamber Music Society's SummerFest '97. It is an expanded version of Neikrug's most famous work--a one-character chamber opera in which the text is spoken instead of sung. The original 50-minute work also appears in concert on Monday at the festival, featuring actor John Rubenstein, with Neikrug himself conducting.

While looking for a way to combine theater and music, Neikrug found his powerful subject matter back in the late 1970s, while attending a rehearsal of the English Chamber Orchestra. One of the cellists, he discovered, had been forced to play Bach in Auschwitz as her fellow prisoners walked to the gas chambers.

Neikrug's concept quickly took shape: A violinist who survived the German camps through his playing finds the music he had cherished now painfully distorted. Discordant motifs from Bach and Beethoven fill the score and, in a near-quote from life, the violinist recalls being forced to play in the commander's rose garden, accompanying his own lover's murder. Musicians appear onstage representing the violinist's aural nightmares, and the text uses a system ofcues that keeps the actor's speech patterns from interfering with the music.

Critics, however, came to the premiere with quills drawn, and the 1980 National Theatre production at London's South Bank Festival was savaged in the British music press. "The reaction was one of the most violent things I've ever witnessed," the composer recalls. "They not only didn't like it, they hated it, and hated me for having written it. They attacked me in such an aggressive and exaggerated way that the piece had obviously struck a nerve."

Despite some favorable reviews after its New York premiere that season at the 92nd Street Y (The New York Times called the script "an extraordinary achievement" with "excellent dramatic timing") Neikrug considered the piece dead. The German baritone Martin Egel, however, revived it for the 1982 Vienna Festival to glowing reviews, after which the piece took on a life of its own, garnering more than 40 productions (15 in Germany alone) in 11 different languages.

A documentary film of the premiere, which had also picked up a few prizes, brought the 50-minute work to the attention of German producers Rainer Mockert and Ulrich Lenze.

"They came to me and asked what production of this I would want filmed," Neikrug recalls. "I said, 'None.' If they were going to make a film, I wanted it to be a real film, on my terms. No one was expecting that."

Mockert and Lenze secured funding for the film and found its director on the basis of a 1995 "Through Roses" production mounted by Flimm at Hamburg's Thalia Theater. Neikrug and Flimm together worked out the shooting screenplay, and from then on the composer handpicked the cast, musicians and production team, including the violinist Pinchas Zukerman (Neikrug's longtime recital partner), music producer Philip Traugott (their producer at BMG) and Academy Award-winning cinematographer David Watkin ("Out of Africa," "Chariots of Fire"), a music fanatic to whom Neikrug gave piano lessons on the set.

But the film finally took shape with the commitment of Schell, who had been deeply involved with the work from the beginning. Schell and the composer first met backstage after a Neikrug recital in Munich in the '70s, and the two kept in touch.

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