Julius Bürger – expelled and rediscovered I A Viennese composer returns

Julius Bürger – expelled and rediscovered I A Viennese composer returns

The RSO, under the direction of Gottfried Rabl, performed works by Julius Bürger (1897-1995) for the Austrian premiere on Aug. 18, 2023, in the large broadcasting hall of the ORF RadioKulturhaus. And it came 18 years after the Jewish composer died in New York at the age of 98.

Portrait Buerger vor Klavier Brian Coats

Julius Bürger (Photo: Brian Coats)

That the pieces were able to be heard at all was thanks to the shrewd actions of Ronald S. Pohl, a New York estate attorney. He had been hired by Bürger in 1989 to administer the estate of his wife Rose, who had died shortly before, and to give most of the money to young, Israeli musicians. Not yet knowing that Julius Bürger had a remarkable compositional oeuvre to his credit, Pohl asked him whether, due to his advanced age, he might not want to tackle his estate in time, which turned out to be a stroke of luck. Bürger, born and raised in Vienna, had moved to Berlin as a young man with fellow students and his composition teacher Franz Schreker, and thereafter commuted between London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna. Hitler’s invasion of Austria, however, alarmed him so much that he was able to emigrate to America with his wife in time. There he received American citizenship, worked at the Metropolitan Opera, but also for radio and television stations as a conductor, arranger and commissioned composer, without, however, completely abandoning his own independent compositional activity. Fortunately, Bürger had found a man of action in Pohl. He pulled out all the stops to fulfill his client’s wish to hear his Cello Concerto from 1932, which was first performed in 1952 and had not been heard since 1991, once again. Pohl’s efforts were successful. After performances in the USA, it was also played in Israel – by those musicians who had received scholarships from Rose Bürger. Only after contact was made with Gerold Gruber, director of the Exilarte Center for banned Music at the mdw, and Julius Bürger’s musical estate was brought to Vienna, was it possible to perform a concert of works by him here as well. If Pohl had not met with the composer, one may assume with great certainty that his works, which were collected in a small piece of furniture, would have been disposed of after his death when the apartment was vacated.

The RSO Vienna plays Julius Bürger.

Photo: Benjamin Pieber – Herzog Media

Adagio for String Orchestra

The range of works heard in Vienna was rich. The opening was an Adagio for string orchestra, from 1978, which was the only work that had ever been performed in Austria. Flowing gently, it darkened briefly every now and then to expose more dramatic material. The bass violins at some points literally push the strings to moments of tension, but they are always overcome by them. They finally manage to leave behind the wild, the evil, the almost unspeakable, which makes itself audible again and again, and let the work end with a tender euphony. A good choice, as far as the solo part of the cello concerto was concerned, which was played afterwards, had been made with Anna Litvinenko. Impressive were not only the technically difficult passages, mastered with bravura, but especially the intimacy and sensitivity of her solo in the last movement. Technique is only one component of a successful performance, but filling the work with soul makes the difference that Litvinenko was able to show the audience. After a quiet introduction, the winds form and release a pulsating rhythm that the orchestra and cello pick up. Soon the musical action becomes lightly dance-like and develops into a slow flow in which the rhythmic pulsations repeat themselves. Again and again, the little theme, spanning barely 3 measures, emerges across the orchestra. Bürger allows the movement to end only with the winds, supported by the cello. The composer subsequently dedicated the 2nd movement to his mother, who had been killed by the Nazis during the march to Auschwitz. A long, dragging march is intoned at the very beginning, and the cello theme is soon taken up by the oboe. The strings enter elegantly and are carried by the solo instrument, which continues the theme. The dragging ductus gradually transforms into a general shimmering and a transition of the theme into a brightened scenario with harp accompaniment. The soothing, lovely attitude does not last long; soon the sound clouds over again. It experiences a sharp agglomeration and comes up with a long wind sequence with disharmonies that wake up the orchestra and animate it to a wild, gloomy event. Now the cello gets a solo that can be described as illusionless. No trace of that calm, life-affirming passage with harp accompaniment is perceptible anymore; rather, it seems as if the cello has surrendered to the voices of wild violence. Logically, this is followed by an ending in which the orchestra, as at the beginning, reproduces the dragging march. Knowing the fate of Bürger’s mother, one can feel what last moment of life he has captured here musically. In the rapid 3rd movement, the cello responds almost chamber-like to the individual instrumental solos. Again and again, soothing passages, often supported by the strings in unison, counter the lively ones heard earlier, which then pick up speed again with the help of the winds in interplay with the cello. The finale is a cello solo with differentiated, beautiful dynamic colorations, which is followed by a furious final wind and timpani event. The orchestra and soloist rightly received prolonged applause for the performance.

Songs with symphonic accompaniment

The following two songs with symphonic accompaniment were interpreted by Matija Meić. “Legend” after a text by Christian Morgenstern and “Silence of the Night” after Gottfried Keller, allowed musical comparisons with Gustav Mahler. Almost every line, every mood, every description of a state of landscape, soul or action receives its own, musical expression in Bürger. Whether Jesus before his walk into the garden of Gethsemane, completely unexpectedly begins to dance with a young woman and these exuberant steps become audible, whether the surf of a sea addressed in Gottfried Keller, triggers musical surges in the body of sound, music and word support each other most artfully. Meić’s baritone sounded full, warm and very mature, without, however, lacking clear enunciation. He managed with ease to leave the broad symphonic support, a challenge for the singer in these works, as such and rather to contribute vocally like a solo instrument. Both pieces can be characterized as small symphonic poems, but endowed with an epic weight using a large instrumentarium, which makes them extraordinarily exciting. One would like to hear more of them.

The RSO Vienna performs Julius Bürger. Pictured here is baritone Matija Meić

Photo: Benjamin Pieber – Herzog Media

“Eastern Symphony”

The concert concluded with the “Eastern Symphony” from 1931.In 3 movements, it opens with a bright theme in the winds that is answered by the strings. Memories of Gershwin, one year older, are evoked, mainly by the strongly accented rhythms, which also change frequently. It is striking, as in the songs before, that Bürger keeps the entire orchestral instrumentarium in almost constant motion. There is hardly a passage in which the musicians are not challenged at the same time, which proves immensely appealing. Cymbals, timpani and drums set the predominant tone, as do the winds, and allow the movement to be experienced as hymn-like and progressive. The 2nd movement begins with the oboe, broadly supported by the orchestra. She is answered by violins and cellos in such a way that a fluidity takes hold of the entire body of sound and a wide, opening landscape can easily be imagined. Again it is the harp that leads to the clarinet, bassoon and strings, as well as the soft wood. It is this instrumental thematic wandering and at the same time the continuation of the same that makes this movement so interesting. The quiet ductus is maintained and the end also sounds accordingly. How could it be otherwise, the final movement begins furiously in the entire orchestra with a wild run. Trumpets and drums set the rapid rhythm, which only calms down with the harp and oboe with the theme sung by the strings above. Now it is the flutes that complete this description of the landscape. As if following a river with small whirlpools of water, the violins, held by the clarinet, spiral on in a lively manner, handing over to the flutes. With a final, massive orchestral entry, the theme, presented once again, ends the beautiful work. The characteristics of Bürger’s music are unambiguous and can be clearly stated. As a composer, he stands aesthetically between the 19th and 20th centuries, from which he borrowed not only the courage to blur sound, but also hitherto unusual rhythms and some new instrumentation. However, his compositional technique is always clearly comprehensible, structures are easily recognizable and – this is what distinguishes Bürger’s symphonic works in particular – he captivates with a musical richness of color par excellance. Austria, especially Vienna, has not made amends with this concerto. There is no such thing. The statement that was made, however, is clear and was more than necessary. Taking care of the estates of expelled composers is an absolute imperative of the hour. The work of the mdw’s Exilarte Center should be brought much more into the public consciousness. A broader awareness of this inglorious chapter in the context of music history can at least help to ensure that the work of the exiles is not consigned to oblivion. We, who are in the fortunate position of being posthumous, can either get actively involved in this event or – and this must not be underestimated – we storm concerts like these and fill the halls to capacity. In doing so, we express our interest and give the music what keeps it alive and what it deserves: our undivided attention.

f.l.t.r Prof. Gerold Gruber, Anna Litvinenko, Ronald S. Pohl, Gottfried Rabl

f.l.t.r Prof. Gerold Gruber, Josipa Bainac Hausknecht, Ronald S. Pohl, Gottfried Rabl (Photo: Ronald Pohl)

The Sound Magician

The Sound Magician

The Sound Magician

By Michaela Preiner

Ingmar Flashaar (Photo: European Cultural News)


September 2017

Translated by Victoria R. Yan

There are people with special talents. Some are sport aces, some communication experts who can strike up a conversation with anyone, and others masters of an instrument. We all know someone who is endowed with such a gift.

Then there are people who possess talents that cannot be compared with those of others. Ingmar Flashaar is one of them. He started taking piano lessons at age nine and continued until he was 19. As the son of Austrian parents, he grew up in Winterthur, Switzerland. It was not until much later that he moved to Vienna with his wife, Ketevan Sepashivili, a pianist. So to speak, to his motherland which had never been his home before.

Everything began with piano playing

The phenomenon of sound, which he was gifted with since his first attempts at the piano, did not leave him even after ending private piano lessons. He then acquired the craft as a piano technician, a profession that requires not only skilled fingers and ears but also unconditional love and devotion to the sound. For decades, he has been a sought-after specialist in the greatest concert halls in Austria and beyond, and is acquainted with various pianists from the jazz and classical world who are grateful for his work on their instruments.

However, the special talent that distinguishes Ingmar Flashaar from the others is his ability to refine sounds. He performs “sound refinement” on pianos, as well as on all other instruments presented to him. This does not involve mechanical handwork, such as tightening screws, fitting strings or re-adjusting tuning pegs. The “sound magician” manages to bring the best out of every instrument thanks to his energy. Anyone who watches him as he touches the instruments, feels them, stops for a moment and ponders, cannot imagine these interventions will finally become audible, and yet they are.

The energy that he transfers into the instruments actually heals their invisible wounds. Although you cannot see the wounds or the healing process, if you have played the instrument before and after its treatment, you can hear the striking differences. Musicians, who witnessed this on their instruments, showered him with praises.

ingmar gong

Ingmar Flashaar (Photo: European Cultural News)

Sound that can help people

“I have come to understand that ‘sound’ in my life is the means by which I can best express myself, and with which I can help people greatly” says the magician of sound. He took a step towards a different direction, and today, after many different additional training courses, he has discovered his skill and trained his talent so well that he became a true professional in every aspect of his work. To enhance a sound, to improve an instrument and to spread positive energy into the world with sound – that is what makes Ingmar Flashaar so unique. It is not a one-way street on which he moves.

In addition to his work “to ensure a good mood in the house” and to transform instruments to produce sounds that are indescribable, Ingmar Flashaar also plays concerts. In the Ruprechtskirche – the oldest church in Vienna – he can be heard frequently performing his special Light-Sound concerts. He appeared as a guest performer at the Kunsthaus Mürzzuschlag at the beginning of September 2017. With him he brought a gong and five crystal sound bowls from Silicon Valley. A Fazioli concert grand piano, which is stationed permanently in the Kunsthaus, was also put to use. As he wandered between the instruments, one was able to hear what “sound energy” actually meant and that the instruments he “plays” seemed to be living beings, to which he blows life into.

ingmar klavier

Ingmar Flashaar (Photo: European Cultural News)

ingmar klangschalen

His instruments are like living creatures

The way he began by delicately swiping the big gong with a drumstick, without even making the slightest attempt to strike the beautiful Chinese instrument, was fascinating from the first second. Moreover, the various sounds he elicited from this instrument. One voice after another could be heard; voices like those of humans. Delicate and tranquil breathing, followed by feverish, lamenting, and agitated emotions – as if by magic, they seemed to have been freed from a metal enclosure second by second with the help of Ingmar. As the deep and powerful sounds of the gigantic gong – 95 centimeters in diameter – echoed through the hall, the ears of the audience were taken unawares. A mastering, masculine energy floated through the room; however it did not feel at all threatening. Highly concentrated, attentive and spellbound was his audience that you could hear a pin drop.

It was neither the skillfully mastered rhythm nor the melody which flowed through the hall. It was pure energy, which swept the bodies of the listeners away and placed them in a state that is rarely achieved in concerts. Through these magical moments it became clear that this musician and sound magician had found the key of access to his instruments, a key that has nothing to do with meter and melody. One gained the impression that this man, with his outstanding talent, freed a secret hidden energy, which seemed that he could easily call upon. Unleashed, released and at his disposal, he was able to spread a force that was both strengthening and incredibly reassuring at the same time.

The sound specialist then switched quietly and naturally to the piano after finishing his improvisation introduction on the gong. The Fazioli grand piano, which Flashaar was already familiar with through previous tunings on the instrument in Mürzzuschlag, waited majestically for his first touch. As if greeting an old friend, the artist approached the piano reverently and started with a sparkling run. Once again, there were some very special moments that went under the skin and touched the soul. By the repetition of a single note, which was crystal clear and articulate, he played an improvisation that reminded one of the musical styles of Arvo Pärt, Arnold Schoenberg, and Enrico Einaudi. As a delicate echo sounded back and forth through the hall, it became clear that he was able to produce goose bumps without needing to press more than ten keys. This single tone, with its very unique vibration, made all the tones before seem as if to be playmates which he had long left behind. He then, however, took them back with him on his journey, where they united once again. This moment could be compared to a situation where one sees a distinctive person in the midst of a crowd. He looks at this person involuntarily yet so intensely that it is possible to fully grasp the person’s essence within mere seconds. Without knowing who this person is, where he came from and where he is heading. He is a unique being, who at this moment unexpectedly transforms into the ambassador of humanity.

ingmar gong01

Ingmar Flashaar (Photo: European Cultural News)

From the chip production to the concert hall

Finally the crystal sound bowls, which completed Flashaar’s concert instruments, unsurprisingly proved to possess independent individualities of their own. There was a large, dominating sound bowl surrounded by four smaller bowls, all of which were endowed with their own unique sound qualities. “Usually silicon is melted into them. Since the crystal in which this is done must not have the slightest flaw, not even the slightest hairline crack, the bowls are examined carefully before their use. Those that I use have been acquired before further production.” They have come a long way from the US to Europe, and are now brought to sound by Flashaar’s hands. Tangible sound waves were created during the concert, comparable to healing hands, which can be felt during a tender massage. The sounds created by the milky-white bowls traveled through the ears then directly into the hearts of the audience. He flattered, calmed and brought them to a state of unquestionable trust. The warm and beautiful musical soundscape, beating with thriving energy, embraced the various sensations around them fearlessly.

After a final improvisation on the gong, with his head slightly lowered and his arms partly spread, Flashaar stood still in front of the instrument until the last audible sound had faded. It seemed as if he had summoned “it” back. “It” meaning the sound phenomena that was freed from its surrounding metal shells by him during this magical night. With its power, the audience was able to have a taste of the abundant experiences that Ingmar Flashaar had experienced throughout his life. He proved that the sounds created by energy were not only an aesthetic experience but also an energy that can touch the hearts of people.

“I would like to perform sound refinement on all the instruments of an orchestra. I know the great differences would positively influence the musicians.” This is one of the two wishes of the tall gentleman. His second wish, “I really desire to perform a Light-Sound concert in the Votivkirche.” His first vision “only” requires one person, who has the ability and willingness to refine multiple sound apparatus. The engagement of 400 good-willed people, who will have the chance to experience a relaxing ‘sound shower’, are needed in order to realize his second wish to perform in the Votivkirche.

One thing is for sure: whenever one or the other event takes place, we will be there to report about it.

The history behind the article:

I, Michaela Preiner, author of this article, noticed a distracting noise coming from inside my daughter’s Kawai grand piano some time ago. Several piano mechanics had tried to solve the problem, but in vain. Thankfully, the piano company Stingl recommended Ingmar Flashaar to me. After an hour of deep pondering and careful investigation of the instrument, he followed his intuition. Using a mechanical trick, he then removed an undefinable, small piece of wood which had been jammed at an inaccessible area under a string, therefore causing the noise. Everyone who once had their beloved instrument successfully repaired can imagine how overjoyed I was to have the problem solved.

As Ingmar Flashaar offered to perform sound refinement on my piano a few months later, I was somewhat skeptical. However, drastic differences of each key before and after his work were immediately audible. I could barely believe my ears. I was in awe of the new sound quality which filled the room whenever the instrument was played. Another feeling came to my mind: the feeling of a closer communication between the performer and the piano. Many musicians develop a strong bondage between themselves and their instrument. They become good or even best friends. Often one wants to do something special for their best friend to show appreciation for their friendship. The sound refinement was my special “something” for my grand piano. However, it returned the favor at the same time by its enchanting sounds that even helped me conquer performance blockades that I once used to have.

One may consider these statements non-verifiable. This reaction is not a stranger to me, as I once also felt the same way. However the immiscible sound quality, a privilege that I get to experience again and again since the sound refinement, speaks for itself. Touched and motivated by the various possibilities that the sound now offers me, I overcame my past shyness towards public performances and presently offer musical wellness sessions. I devote each session to a single individual, with the goal to pass on happiness and the magic of sound. It is a true privilege and blessing to have this piano in my life.

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