Sightings of Henze and Elvis

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

I just missed seeing Hans Werner Henze by two days.

Had I visited Leipzig on a Saturday rather than the following Monday on my trip to eastern Germany this past May, I could have caught a glimpse of the venerated German composer, who died Oct. 27 at 86, receiving well-wishers in J.S. Bach’s own church, the Thomaskirche. I know this because Donald Rosenberg, the president of the Music Critics Association of North America, made the trek to Leipzig that Saturday afternoon, although he wasn’t sure of who the elderly gentleman in the church was until he perused the concert schedule on the train back to Dresden. Henze was in town for the world premiere of a 20-minute choral-orchestral piece, An den Wind.  It might have been his last.

Hans Werner Henze in 1960, with four symphonies already under his belt.

has fascinated me for a long time for the sheer eclectic nature of his output, hovering all over the lot between the extremes of the avant-garde and extremely audience-friendly tonality. He could not be placed in a convenient slot of his time – neither a radical like Stockhausen, nor an alleged “conservative” like Britten. He wasn’t someone who led or hitched his wagon to a big, polarizing musical movement for long, be it neo-classicism, neo-Romanticism, serialism, minimalism, whatever “ism” you choose. As a result, Henze was often overlooked in recent decades, denied a place as a major figure. What he did sound off about was left-wing politics, and that probably also marginalized his profile in a world that eventually got tired of polemics, especially after the Cold War imploded over two decades ago.

No matter.  I enjoy Henze for his dazzling command of orchestral sonorities, his modern extension of the symphonic tradition – his ten symphonies, particularly the freewheeling Sixth with its electronic punctuations, are a treasure chest of ideas – his occasionally kooky ventures like The Tedious Way To Natasha Ungeheuer’s Apartment (labeled as a “show”), where a free jazz band, electronic tape, brass quintet and Hammond organ trade often wild jabs with a new-music-tradition-encrusted “Pierrot” ensemble.  He wasn’t played all that often in Southern California; the only major performances that come quickly to mind over the last quarter-century were those of the three-quarter-hour-long Kammermusik 1958, an entire program devoted to the powerful song cycle Voices, and more recently his tip-of-the-cap to Schubert, Erlkönig.  But Dresden celebrated Henze just in time, as the Semperoper devoted a good deal of its September schedule to three of his theatrical works – and the day he died, Henze was supposed to have attended the premiere of a new ballet set to his ballet score Das Vokaltuch der Kammersängerin Rosa Silber. Maybe the rest of the world will catch up now that he is a historical figure.

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Alright, so I missed Henze, but I can say that I saw Elvis Presley (when was the last time you saw the names Henze and Elvis in the same article, let alone one sentence?). That was my first rock concert ever, I’m proud to say – although if memory serves, Elvis merely walked through the performance, flashing his undeniable charisma with self-aware humor as he teased the screaming crowd.

There’s a fresh reminder of those days afoot as the inexhaustible Elvis marketing machine has uncovered something new for the faithful and the curious.  A fan took silent 8mm footage of one of Elvis’s epochal concerts in New York’s Madison Square Garden in June 1972 – his first and it turned out, only gig in the Big Apple – and RCA/Legacy has painstakingly synched the appropriate segments of high-fidelity music from the concert with the film. It’s part of a new 3-disc set with the cosmic title Prince From Another Planet, featuring the newly-restored film, a short documentary, a rare Elvis press conference, and the complete June 10 afternoon and evening concerts (both of which have been out before, though not in one package).

Watching the film can be a trial, for there’s only 20 minutes of footage of an hour-long concert (home movie cameras had painfully-limited capacity in those pre-camcorder days), so patches of Elvis performing are interrupted by long stretches of blank screen as the soundtrack blares on.  Yet in one important way, this amateur film is a more honest document than your usual multi-camera, jump-cut, close-up-filled concert film.  This is the Elvis I remember, shot from the average audience-member’s perspective, our eyes riveted on that gesturing, mock-karate-chopping, brilliant-blue-outfitted figure. Only this time, he’s in better form, charged up by the pressure of performing in the biggest media center he would ever play.

Ah, we’ve strayed off-topic again, but I don’t think the free-thinking, pop-culture-influenced Henze of Natascha Ungeheuer would have minded.