Home » Present music tackles anti-Semitism with a new score in a rediscovered film

Present music tackles anti-Semitism with a new score in a rediscovered film

by Stewart Cole

The silent cinema of 1924 Die Stadt ohne Juden The City Without Jews in German – warned of the dangers of anti-Semitism and was met with public controversy when it was released. In the film, a fictional town in Austria expels its Jewish population by train, bearing a chilling resemblance to the Holocaust, which occurred nearly 20 years later.

Present Music opens its final season on October 29 with a screening of the film, which is updated with a 2018 score written by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth. The project is a collaboration between the organization and nine other Milwaukee cultural partners, including Milwaukee Jewish Museum and UW-Milwaukee’s Stahl Center for Jewish Studies.

Olga Neuwirth, San Lorenzo, Venedig, den 28.05.2016; Photo: Priska Ketterer Luzern

“We knew we had to do some work around the film, educate ourselves and let people know the kind of experience they were going to have,” says David Petry, director of development for Present Music.

Image courtesy of Present Music

The show is surrounded by educational programming such as exhibitions and facilitated discussions. A pre-screening panel features Yaniv Dinur, former assistant conductor at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the show’s guest conductor.

Dinour says he joined the project because of his Jewish and Israeli heritage and his experience directing concerts in films. But instead of a full orchestra, Dinour will lead an unusual, impressive chamber ensemble of clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, violas, cellos and electronic noises.

“[The composer Neuwirth] she herself is Jewish and she said she really had to hold back what she was feeling,” says Dinur. “He just felt rage, but he didn’t want the music to be angry or go kitsch.”

The composition juxtaposes the film’s darkly comedic tone and present-day audience knowledge to create unsettling tension. Quotations of klezmer music and classical works such as Elgar Process of pomp and circumstance occasionally it comes out in a kind of irony, Dinour says.

“At the same time, you hear this electronic sound underneath like something that’s very ominous, like something bad is going to happen. When you watch the film with this music, you go into a trance – as if time stands still.”

Yaniv Dinur with Present Music in Milwaukee
Guest conductor Yaniv Dinur; Photo courtesy of Present Music

The film ends with the fictional city realizing its mistake and reinstating its Jewish population, and it is revealed that the whole story was a dream. “We know that didn’t really happen in real life, right? [Present music co-artistic director Eric Segnitz] he felt there was a need for something else to close the night, something more hopeful,” says Dinur.

As a result, Present Music commissioned a cover of Woody Guthrie and Lisa Gutkin’s song “Gonna Get Through This World”, arranged by Israeli composer Aviya Kopelman and performed by singer Donna Woodall. Guthrie’s lyrics depict someone hardened and determined for a better future, and the American klezmer group The Klezmatics wrote music to accompany the words decades later.

Donna Woodall; Photo courtesy of Present Music

The performance and programming comes as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified and left thousands of Palestinians and Israelis dead in and around Gaza. “When we planned this show months ago, I didn’t imagine it would reach this new level,” says Dinur, who grew up in Israel. “In musical terms, everything you experience affects you as an artist, affects your approach.”

Aviya Kopelman; Photo courtesy of Present Music

“I don’t think it’s going to change the actual performance. the film is the film and the score is the score,” says Petry. “The film looks forward, whereas the contemporary score written for this film, the composer is able to look back and frame the film in a way to create a different type of understanding.”

Its visibility and rating performance Die Stadt ohne Juden will be held in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Windhover Room on October 29 at 7:30 p.m. For a complete schedule list, visit Present Music.



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