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UCLA orchestra's debut CD brings work of forgotten composer to life

UCLA Philharmonia records CD at Royce Hall

UCLA Philharmonia Director Neal Stulberg (standing at right) leads the orchestra as it records its first CD, "Eric Zeisl," at Royce Hall.

Reviving the music of an important but under-recognized composer and boosting public appreciation for his contribution to Los Angeles’ 20th-century musical history, UCLA Philharmonia, the premiere orchestra at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, has released its first CD.


The CD, titled "Eric Zeisl" and issued last month by Yarlung Records, features world-premiere recordings of three of the composer’s orchestral works: "Little Symphony after Pictures of Roswitha Bitterlich," "November: Six Sketches for Chamber Orchestra" and "Concerto Grosso for Cello and Orchestra," with internationally renowned cellist and UCLA professor Antonio Lysy as soloist.


"Making a commercial CD with a university orchestra is a major milestone for our department and our school," said professor Neal Stulberg, who has served as UCLA Philharmonia’s music director since 2005 and who conducts all three works on the disc.


The motivation behind the recording, Stulberg explained, wasn’t to provide a "vanity" keepsake for the musicians’ families or the School’s donors, but rather to give the student participants an invaluable educational experience while sharing high-quality but neglected music with the public.


Both Stulberg and Lysy said that choosing to record Zeisl’s music was actually an easy decision. Though never wildly popular, Zeisl’s music has been performed by UCLA ensembles since the 1970s and much more so in the last decade as the composer was rediscovered by contemporary audiences and critics, Lysy said.


Director of UCLA Philharmonia Neal Stulberg

Neal Stulberg, director of UCLA Philharmonia.

There are additional ties between Zeisl and the campus. The first performance of all six movements of "November" took place at Schoenberg Hall in 1984. The composer’s archives are housed at UCLA. And Zeisl’s daughter married the son of Arnold Schoenberg, the composer for whom UCLA’s music building is named.


"We have very strong connections with the Zeisl family, who are very keen to have Zeisl’s music better known," Lysy said. "Los Angeles needs to discover Zeisl because he’s very important to its cultural history."


Zeisl was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1905 but fled his hometown to Paris in 1938 just ahead of the Nazi invasion. He moved to New York in 1939 and finally settled in Los Angeles in 1941. Zeisl earned some renown composing music for the Hollywood studios, even scoring several Abbott and Costello comedies, while also working as a teacher at Los Angeles City College. He died in 1959 of a heart attack at age 53 after teaching his evening class.


Tragically, Zeisl never heard his "Concerto Grosso for Cello and Orchestra" performed. The piece was given its sole performance at a Wilshire Ebell Theater memorial concert for the composer, featuring former Los Angeles Philharmonic principal cellist George Neikrug.


UCLA professor and cellist Antonio Lysy

UCLA professor and cellist Antonio Lysy.

In a remarkable coincidence, the cello Neikrug played that night is the same cello heard on this recording — Lysy owns it.


The CD, which is available on iTunes and Amazon and can be streamed here, was recorded in two sessions at Royce Hall — the "Concerto Grosso" in January 2012 and the "Little Symphony" and "November" the following November.


Third-year undergraduate cello major Andrea Yu recalled that making the recordings was stressful. "One person in a section would make a mistake, and the whole take would be ruined," Yu said. "It gets tougher the more people you add to the mix because everyone’s part has to line up perfectly."


There were other concerns, Yu said. The recording microphones would pick up every sound, so Stulberg and the 75 musicians had to silently turn the pages of their sheet music and suppress any urges to cough, clear their throats or even breathe too loudly.


Another challenge of orchestral recording, Stulberg and Lysy notes, was to maintain focus and spontaneity through an often exhausting process.


For the six movements of "November," that meant consistently conveying what professor emeritus of musicology Malcolm Cole described in the liner notes as "different moods of November painted in music." The melodies and rhythms in the movement titled "Rainy Day," for example, don’t’ just mimic the sound of rain but evoke the melancholy a listener might feel while listening to it.



When composing the "Little Symphony" in the mid 1930s, Zeisl was inspired by the bizarre paintings of a 14-year-old girl named Roswitha Bitterlich. For the musicians, that meant evoking musically the four paintings Zeisl used as the basis for each of the symphony’s movements. "The Madman," the painting that inspired the first movement (and that serves as the album’s cover art) is a macabre image of an imprisoned man playing a rope tied around his neck as if it were a violin.


Cellist and second-year master’s student Sean Fischer said that Zeisl’s music was initially "odd," but that examining the paintings helped all the musicians interpret the composer’s vision. "If you look closely at the paintings, you can understand the strangeness of the music, which makes it easier to appreciate."


Stulberg and Lysy are proud that this disc will be a significant contribution to the cultural history of Los Angeles.


"There’s a sweetness and sentimentality to the Los Angeles studio playing style of the 1940s and 50s that might seem kitschy today, but that was an integral component of mid-century Hollywood cinema," Lysy said. "That style originated in Eastern Europe and came to Hollywood with the influx of refugee musicians from Europe who ended up populating the legendary studio orchestras."


"Los Angeles has always been a city of shifting ethnicities and reinvigorating immigration," Stulberg said. "The synthesis of old and new worlds that characterizes Zeisl’s music is certainly also found in the art of more recent Southern California immigrant artists."


UCLA Philharmonia plans to record more of Zeisl’s orchestral music soon, Stulberg said. "This CD sends an important message to the public about our school’s high performance standards, enterprise and artistic values."