‘Ernest Bloch and Eric Zeisl: Fifty Years Later’ honors L.A.'s Jewish artists

JOINT EFFORT: Andrea Miller, left, and Tina Berkett work out Body Traffic’s modern-dance moves for Zeisl’s “Jacob and Rachel,” which will be accompanied live by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony.
JOINT EFFORT: Andrea Miller, left, and Tina Berkett work out Body Traffic’s modern-dance moves for Zeisl’s “Jacob and Rachel,” which will be accompanied live by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony.
(Christina House, For The Times)

Classical composer Eric Zeisl had a tough time living in mid-20th century Los Angeles.

The somber, heavy-browed Austrian, who left Nazi-dominated Europe in 1938, stated that the two things he hated most in this world were Hitler and the sun. He was able to flee the Anschluss, but what nearly did him in was Southern California weather. Exposed to its relentless rays, Zeisl’s pale skin broke out in a rash. In photographs he peers out from under sombreros and parasols -- looking mightily displeased.

Despite the climate, Zeisl remained in L.A. and in 1954 the University of Judaism commissioned him to create a biblically themed ballet, “Jacob and Rachel,” in collaboration with UJ dance and drama director, choreographer Benjamin Zemach. But Zeisl’s requirement for a full orchestra broke the budget, and the project went unproduced. On Tuesday at the Wadsworth Theatre in Westwood, “Jacob and Rachel” will enjoy its premiere, half a century late.

This archaeological dig into rich L.A. cultural history is being staged by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and the dance troupe Body Traffic. In a local rarity, the event presents modern dance accompanied by live orchestra, as Zeisl originally intended. The full-evening program, " Ernest Bloch and Eric Zeisl: Fifty Years Later,” marks the 50th anniversary of Zeisl’s death at age 53 in L.A. It also honors the Swiss-born Bloch, a fellow Jewish émigré represented by “Suite Modale for Flute and Strings” (1956), one of his final works before his death, in Oregon, also in 1959.

The production of “Jacob and Rachel” advances a promising new repertory dance ensemble spearheaded by Lillian Barbeito, a Juilliard-trained modern dancer, and Tina Berkett, a founding member of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance. Body Traffic’s highly successful prior collaboration with LAJS -- an interpretation of Arnold Schoenberg’s string sextet “Verklärte Nacht” staged at Sinai Temple in Westwood -- raised critical interest in the group.

E. Randol Schoenberg is the patron behind the Zeisl project. In 2006 the attorney prevailed in an eight-year quest to wrest Nazi-looted art from the Austrian government and restore it to rightful owner Maria V. Altmann in Los Angeles. LACMA’s subsequent display of Gustav Klimt paintings, including the Austrian painter’s dazzling golden masterpiece “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” focused the eyes of the art world on L.A. for a joyous -- if bittersweet -- cultural moment.

The 42-year-old Schoenberg’s drive to memorialize the city’s role as a wartime safe haven for displaced Jewish artists extends to securing a proper legacy for his two grandfathers. On his mother’s side, he descends from Zeisl. His father’s father was composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Zeisl was born in 1905 to a middle-class family in Vienna. His parents discouraged an arts career, despite his interest in composing and two brothers who were singers. The headstrong Zeisl rebelled, selling his stamp collection to pay tuition for the Vienna State Academy, which he entered at age 14.

Zeisl’s career suffered from bad timing. When Arnold Schoenberg arrived in Los Angeles in 1934, he was already a well-known composer and academic. But Zeisl, 30 years his junior, encountered the era’s most virulent anti-Semitism in full force. When he left the Continent at age 33, he was still unestablished. After stopovers in Paris and New York, Zeisl settled in West Hollywood. He cobbled together a living teaching at Southern California School of Music and Los Angeles City College, imparting composition theory to the likes of Pasadena-born film-television composer Jerry Goldsmith.

Zeisl wrote for film as well. Though his work was largely uncredited, he contributed to 24 movie scores, notably “Bataan” (1943), “Lassie Come Home” (1943), “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) and even “Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man” (1951). Toward the end of his life, he wrote for early television.

Zeisl kvetched that film scoring required a tailor and not a composer. But he wasn’t totally slumming in Hollywood. According to his grandson, he secretly enjoyed his assignments. “Unlike Arnold Schoenberg, Zeisl wrote tonal melodies decorated by soaring crescendos, trills and cadenzas. His sound was rich and descriptive, with a strong narrative thrust. He had a knack for writing a good chase scene,” Schoenberg says. “What he did not enjoy was studio politics.”

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Czech-born maestro of swashbuckling film scores, intervened to secure a gig with full screen credit for Zeisl at Universal. Korngold railed that if Zeisl went unhired, it would be “over my dead body.” Zeisl signed a contract in 1957 to score the film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (directed by Douglas Sirk in 1958). But before work had begun, Universal replaced Zeisl with Miklós Rózsa. The Hungarian’s contacts were higher up the studio food chain -- plus, he had won Oscars. Two weeks later, Korngold died of a heart attack. Zeisl’s contract was paid out, but he felt humiliated.

Instead, he wrote volumes of serious music: choral, chamber and symphonic works, ballets and operas. “My grandfather never gave up. Of course he felt frustrated that he never achieved significant recognition. And he could be melancholy over the hand that life had dealt him. But he also had optimism. He composed nonstop, even without the possibility of an audience,” says Schoenberg.

Zeisl’s “Jacob and Rachel” recounts the journey of Jacob told in Exodus. Fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau, Jacob encounters the shepherdess Rachel. It’s love at first sight. After working seven years to win her hand in marriage, Jacob is hoodwinked by Rachel’s father, Laban, who swaps the bride at the altar. Jacob unwittingly marries Leah, Rachel’s older sister. Jacob must toil an additional seven years to get the right girl.

Is this a fable about the triumph of love, or about a 3,000-year-old dysfunctional family? Both, according to David Wolpe, author of “Why Faith Matters” and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood. Rabbi Wolpe acted as impresario for the Zeisl project, introducing Randol Schoenberg to the Body Traffic dancers. All are congregation members.

“How could Jacob think Leah was Rachel?” Wolpe muses. “The Bible teaches us here, on a mythic level, that in marriage you go to bed with one person and you wake up with another. It is a constant compromise between what you hope for and what you get.”

Body Traffic co-artistic directors Barbeito and Berkett commissioned three prominent Jewish female dance makers to choreograph the vexing narrative. Laura Gorenstein Miller of Helios Dance Theater was assigned Jacob’s first encounter with Rachel. Film and music video choreographer and director Sarah Elgart depicts Leah’s jealous rage over her sister’s betrothal to Jacob. And Andrea Miller, whose company Gallim Dance is based in New York, tackles the bitter betrayal of Jacob.

The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony was familiar with Zeisl, having performed one of his orchestral works in its 1994 debut season.

Noreen Green, the symphony’s artistic director, said Schoenberg, who sits on the orchestra’s board, had always wanted to revive one of his grandfather’s ballet scores and that the dance troupe thought “Jacob and Rachel” would work best for modern dance.

“The score builds on very clear and descriptive leitmotifs for each character, like in a Wagner opera. In the wedding scene, you hear Rachel’s angst and her scream as Laban puts Leah into the bridal veil. Of course you’ll hear it better when you see the dance,” she says with a smile.

“The family still had the rehearsal tapes Zeisl created for the UJ production in 1954,” Green says. “Zeisl was a pianist. He recorded a keyboard version of his own symphonic score. That is an invaluable resource for a conductor. The three choreographers and the dancers used the tapes as well.”