The Power of the 'Roses'

Ken Smith is a music writer based in New York

The audience for the early showing of Marc Neikrug's "Through Roses" began leaving quietly during the credits. The 8 p.m. audience started applauding at the end, but those who approached the work's creator afterward mostly fell into an awkward silence.

"[One friend] came up, but said he'd have to call me later," Neikrug, 50, said the morning after the film's North American premiere at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. "A lot of people just wanted to touch me, to make some kind of connection. One man came to the 6 o'clock showing, went home to meditate for two hours, then came to the reception."

For Neikrug, who had never before seen the screen version of "Through Roses" in the company of others, the silence was music to his ears.

"This has been an old dream of mine," said the Santa Fe-based pianist and composer, "to make an emotionally powerful film with real music that can stand up to what's happening visually. It's comforting that the piece still retains that effect for an audience. I knew it would--I always knew it would--but sometimes you listen too much to people in the business."

Neikrug's concern seems rather ironic, considering how much people in "the business" actually listened to him. "Through Roses," a portrayal of a tormented concentration camp surivor, remains a rare, if not unique, piece of filmmaking in which a composer called the shots from its inception.

The film, directed by Jurgen Flimm and starring Maximilian Schell, makes its West Coast premiere Wednesday at the La Jolla Chamber Music Society's SummerFest '97. It is an expanded version of Neikrug's most famous work--a one-character chamber opera in which the text is spoken instead of sung. The original 50-minute work also appears in concert on Monday at the festival, featuring actor John Rubenstein, with Neikrug himself conducting.

While looking for a way to combine theater and music, Neikrug found his powerful subject matter back in the late 1970s, while attending a rehearsal of the English Chamber Orchestra. One of the cellists, he discovered, had been forced to play Bach in Auschwitz as her fellow prisoners walked to the gas chambers.

Neikrug's concept quickly took shape: A violinist who survived the German camps through his playing finds the music he had cherished now painfully distorted. Discordant motifs from Bach and Beethoven fill the score and, in a near-quote from life, the violinist recalls being forced to play in the commander's rose garden, accompanying his own lover's murder. Musicians appear onstage representing the violinist's aural nightmares, and the text uses a system ofcues that keeps the actor's speech patterns from interfering with the music.

Critics, however, came to the premiere with quills drawn, and the 1980 National Theatre production at London's South Bank Festival was savaged in the British music press. "The reaction was one of the most violent things I've ever witnessed," the composer recalls. "They not only didn't like it, they hated it, and hated me for having written it. They attacked me in such an aggressive and exaggerated way that the piece had obviously struck a nerve."

Despite some favorable reviews after its New York premiere that season at the 92nd Street Y (The New York Times called the script "an extraordinary achievement" with "excellent dramatic timing") Neikrug considered the piece dead. The German baritone Martin Egel, however, revived it for the 1982 Vienna Festival to glowing reviews, after which the piece took on a life of its own, garnering more than 40 productions (15 in Germany alone) in 11 different languages.

A documentary film of the premiere, which had also picked up a few prizes, brought the 50-minute work to the attention of German producers Rainer Mockert and Ulrich Lenze.

"They came to me and asked what production of this I would want filmed," Neikrug recalls. "I said, 'None.' If they were going to make a film, I wanted it to be a real film, on my terms. No one was expecting that."

Mockert and Lenze secured funding for the film and found its director on the basis of a 1995 "Through Roses" production mounted by Flimm at Hamburg's Thalia Theater. Neikrug and Flimm together worked out the shooting screenplay, and from then on the composer handpicked the cast, musicians and production team, including the violinist Pinchas Zukerman (Neikrug's longtime recital partner), music producer Philip Traugott (their producer at BMG) and Academy Award-winning cinematographer David Watkin ("Out of Africa," "Chariots of Fire"), a music fanatic to whom Neikrug gave piano lessons on the set.

But the film finally took shape with the commitment of Schell, who had been deeply involved with the work from the beginning. Schell and the composer first met backstage after a Neikrug recital in Munich in the '70s, and the two kept in touch.

When Neikrug began searching for an existing narrative for "Through Roses," Schell urged him to write it himself. After extensive research, Neikrug began writing the text and sketchy the music simultaneously, turning to Schell, and his dramatic expertise, when he found himself blocked.

"I would take what I'd written to show him in Munich," Neikrug says, "and he'd tell me what was wrong and improvise something in return. My original person was being way too hysterical, and he pointed out that you don't survive that way. Survivors sublimate. In the meantime I'd interviewed survivors and came back to him saying, 'Max, these people aren't acting right.' He'd say, 'Well, just think about it. . . . ' "

Neikrug did, and on one return trip to see Schell in Salzburg, he found the actor meeting with director Peter Hall and playwright Peter Shaffer, discussing "Amadeus," their then-work-in-progress. "Max is good at this," he says, "and a lot of people know it."

Although Schell had always claimed too much emotional investment in the role to play it onstage, the logistics of filming made it easier. In a reverse of standard procedure, the work began with the musicians in the recording studio, and only after the soundtrack was recorded did the narrative filming begin, with stopwatch in hand. The film editor (who is also a violinist) edited the film with the score in hand.

"Just as I believe the original piece was a new way of combining music and theater, I believe this is a new way of making film," Neikrug says. "It may well be the last, because it's very expensive."

Total costs came in at around $2 million, he says. Not huge by Hollywood standards, but exorbitant in terms of chamber opera productions. The final film runs just under "Woody Allen feature length," Neikrug says, about 80 minutes.

"There's some new material, which is mostly musical bookends to the scenes, as well as a few new characters," he explains. "I mean, considering that the original work had only one character, each new character in the film broadens the dimensions 100%. You have to put those dimensions into a context. The original conception is very internal; in the film you have to flesh out the images and show an entire world."

After its La Jolla appearance, the film is scheduled for a future screening in Boston, and there's been some talk about a future video release from BMG. "I've learned that people in the film industry talk a lot," Neikrug says. "Musicians tend not to say anything until they know for sure what's happening, so I've learned to stop talking. I'm used to creating and letting go, and not getting caught up in the business."

Part of Neikrug, though, is not ready to let go of "Through Roses." Filming ended last spring and post-production finished in the fall, but Neikrug still sees some things he'd like to change.

"There are photographs I'd like to add," he says, "some trimming to make in a few scenes. But if an audience goes in and comes out like this, what more could you want?"

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"THROUGH ROSES" SummerFest '97, Sherwood Auditorium, Museum of Contemporary Art, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla. Dates: Monday, 7:30 p.m.; the film will be screened Wednesday at the same theater. Prices: $26-$33; film, $4. Phone: (619) 459-3728.

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