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PREVIEW | ARC Ensemble Marks 20th Anniversary Season Of Spotlighting Works Repressed By Antisemitism & Political Oppression

By Anya Wassenberg on November 7, 2023

The ARC Ensemble (Photo courtesy of the artists)
The ARC Ensemble (Photo: Sam Gaetz)

War and oppressive regimes, sadly, are seemingly never in short supply. Toronto’s ARC Ensemble has spent 20 seasons re-introducing the works of composers whose work was suppressed as they were forced into exile by bigotry and antisemitism.

The Ensemble is the brainchild of President & CEO of The Royal Conservatory of Music, Dr. Peter Simon, who looked to showcase the talents of the RCM’s faculty. The group chose as their focus to research and recover the work produced by 20th century composers who had brilliant careers ahead of them, only to be derailed by the forces of oppressive political regimes. Over time, their works have been forgotten; the ARC Ensemble performs and records the gems they discover to re-introduce them to the world.

“Over the past 20 years, the ARC Ensemble has done important work in ensuring that the contributions of composers who were marginalized under the 20th century’s repressive regimes are heard and given their due,” says Dr. Simon in a statement.

The ARC Ensemble: 20 Years

The majority of the Ensemble’s members are made up of senior faculty members at the RCM’s Glenn Gould School. With both Grammy and JUNO nominations for their recordings, they continue to earn international respect for both their work and their artistry.

The ARC Ensemble musicians who will perform for the concert include Erika Raum (violin), Marie Bérard (violin), Steven Dann (viola), Thomas Wiebe (cello), Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet), Kevin Ahfat (piano) and guest performer David Liam Roberts (cello).

Their November 29 concert is titled ARC Ensemble: Celebrating 20 Years in Mazzoleni Hall, and the programme illustrates their ongoing investigations into forgotten music.

Walter Braunfels: String Quintet in F sharp Minor, op. 63

Walter Braunfels (1882 to 1954) enjoyed a successful early career into the 1920s and 1930s — until he was publicly denounced as half-Jewish, and his work was banned as “degenerate” as part of the Nazi regime’s propaganda campaign. He was dismissed from his position at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne in 1933.

Prior to his exile, his operatic and orchestral works as a neo-Romantic composer in the tradition of Strauss and Berlioz, were widely performed. Braunfels retreated from public life during the war years, and while he continued to compose, he never regained his early success.

His String Quartet was an early discovery of ARC Ensemble.

Frederick Block: Modern era premieres  of String Quartet, op. 23; Piano Quintet, op. 19 & Suite for Clarinet, op. 73

The concert will be a kind of second premiere for works by Frederick Block which have not been heard in more than 75 years. Composer Frederick Block was born in 1899 in Vienna, and died on June 1, 1945 — too early to see the end of the war.

A child prodigy, he was composing music by the age of nine. His parents discouraged his musical ambitions at first. After his military service during WWI, though, they supported his enrolment in the Vienna Conservatory.

His music was first heard by a live audience in 1922. His reputation and career grew throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. He wrote eight operas, including some of the libretti.

When the Nazis entered Austria in 1938, he fled to London, where he met his wife. After their marriage, the couple moved to New York in 1940, where Block worked for radio and music publishers, and some film projects. He was prolific, and continued to compose classical works, including another opera, symphonies, suites, and many chamber works.

Some, however, have never been performed, and many others on only on one occasion.

Kevin Ahfat of the ARC Ensemble performs Robert Müller-Hartmann: 3 Intermezzi and Scherzo, op. 22: III. Etwas bewegt, wiegend live in Mazzoleni Concert Hall at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada on November 13, 2022:

Researching the forgotten

ARC Ensemble’s Artistic Director, Simon Wynberg wanted to find a focus for the group that would set them apart from a crowded field.

“I knew it would be difficult to compete with the hundreds of recordings of canonical works and familiar programs,” Wynberg says. “Luckily, I’ve always been drawn to the unfamiliar and I’m always curious as to why some works are endlessly performed, while others are consigned to an eternal hibernation. I love the idea of having an audience experience new music — especially music that enjoyed success in its own time — in the knowledge that we are embarking on an utterly new journey.”

How do they find works that have been gathering dust for many decades? Sometimes the clues can be found in documents such as old concert programmes, or footnotes in artist bio statements. Other times, suggestions have come from relatives of the composers, or musicologists looking into the same field.

“Fortunately, many scores have survived and are hiding in plain sight in large library collections and archives,” says Wynberg.

The search has taken him across the world, from Israel to Argentina, Winnipeg and back. One of the success stories features composer Walter Kaufmann. Born in Bohemia, he was studying in Berlin before he fled to Bombay until after the war. There, his music incorporated classical Indian influences. His works are now published by Viennese publisher Doblinger, and programmed by European and American orchestras as a result of ARC’s research, and subsequent recording of his music. Kaufmann’s Indian Symphony will be performed at Carnegie Hall in 2024.

ARC’s Music in Exile recording series continues with the upcoming November 17, 2023, release that will premiere works by Robert Müller-Hartmann, a composer who fled Hamburg with his wife in 1937 and settled in England.

“It is hugely exciting to uncover a piece that quickens the pulse the first time you hear it,” says Wynberg, “But the process is also rather nerve-racking as we are always asking audiences to trust our choices in travelling these unexplored paths.”

The issue of cultural repression, and the rise of antisemitism. in recent years, makes ARC’s work all the more poignant and vital.

“My hope is that our introductions to these chamber works will encourage further research, exploration and adoption of music that has been unjustifiably ignored,” says Wynberg.

Tickets for the November 29 concert are on sale [HERE].

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