Two Performances Highlight a Nearly Forgotten Viennese Composer With Vermont Ties | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Two Performances Highlight a Nearly Forgotten Viennese Composer With Vermont Ties


Published April 24, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 24, 2024 at 11:58 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Saint Michael's College Archives
  • Richard Stoehr

In the European music capital of Vienna, between the world wars, one of the city's most renowned musical pedagogues was the Austrian Jewish composer Richard Stöhr. During a 30-year career at the Vienna Academy of Music, Stöhr taught theory and composition to many of classical music's future greats, including conductor Erich Leinsdorf and pianist Rudolf Serkin. A prolific composer in the Romantic tradition, he eventually wrote seven symphonies, two operas, and nearly 200 other works for chorus, chamber ensembles and more.

But Stöhr's Viennese career was cut short when the Nazis fired him after the 1938 Anschluss, the annexation of Austria. He emigrated to the United States and jettisoned the umlaut in his name in favor of an "e." Following a two-year stint teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Stoehr lived the rest of his life in Vermont. In 1941, at the age of 67, he moved to Colchester to teach German and other subjects at Saint Michael's College.

Stoehr's Nazi erasure and exile in Vermont contributed to his legacy languishing in obscurity. Since 2010, however, a dedicated cohort of musicians has been working to revive the composer's work. Their efforts will be showcased at a chamber music concert celebrating Stoehr's 150th birthday on Friday, May 3, at St. Michael's McCarthy Arts Center.

The Vermont Philharmonic, directed by Lou Kosma, is also marking the occasion with a performance of Stoehr's Trumpet Concerto at its spring concerts this Saturday and Sunday, April 27 and 28, in Randolph and Barre. Billy R. Hunter Jr., principal trumpet with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, will join the community orchestra.

The St. Michael's program features three of Stoehr's Viennese compositions and a postwar piece he wrote in Vermont. Cellist Stefan Koch of Ann Arbor, Mich., and pianist Robert Conway of Huntington Woods, Mich., will perform his Cello Sonata in A Minor, from 1915, and Four Fantasy Pieces for Cello and Piano, dated 1907. Koch, Conway and Vermont bass-baritone Erik Kroncke will perform his 1909 Three Songs for Low Voice, Cello and Piano, and Vermonters Sofia Hirsch and Alison Cerutti will play First Suite for Violin and Piano, which Stoehr composed in 1946, on their respective instruments.

Koch, a member of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra in Michigan who has been leading the rediscovery, first learned of the composer in 2010, when he met his grandson, Dan Stohr, an attorney in Chicago who spells his surname without the "e."

"I was pretty skeptical about this composer who was a Nazi escapee," Koch recalled during a phone call. "I thought, Surely we've found and resurrected all the composers from that era. Turns out we hadn't."

Koch obtained Stoehr's cello music from St. Michael's College, where some 25 boxes of the composer's personal effects, as well as hundreds of handwritten manuscripts, are archived. Dan Stohr facilitated the donation and transferred ownership of all unpublished music to the college. (Stoehr never had an American publisher.) Archivist Liz Scott eventually had all 6,600 pages of music scanned, and the college has made most available for free on IMSLP, the international virtual library of music scores in the public domain. (A complete list of compositions lives on the Stoehr website, for which Koch created the content.)

Koch estimates that only "10 to 20 percent" of Stoehr's music has been performed or recorded so far. He and Conway made one of the first CDs; now there are 10, three of which feature Koch.

Scott, who is organizing exhibitions of archival materials in the lobby of the McCarthy Arts Center and the school's Durick Library for the occasion, said she receives "about one request a month" for Stoehr's music.

The first, she said, came in 2005 from Karl Raab, now an octogenarian living in Vancouver, who grew up in Colchester listening to the composer play live. Raab's father, Wilhelm, a physician and amateur violinist, was the first Austrian that Stoehr met in Vermont; the two became close friends. According to Koch, Raab suggested having the 150th birthday concerts. Another birthday concert will take place in Vienna this June, with Austrian musicians.

Nat Lew, a St. Michael's music professor and director of the honors program, secured the May concert's venue and Vermont musicians. Lew learned separately of Stoehr when Scott emailed him about the archive shortly after he arrived at the college in 2002. Lew subsequently met Stoehr's daughter, Hedi Ballantyne, through Vermont alto singer Linda Radtke. Ballantyne escaped the Nazis via the Kindertransport before reaching Vermont, where she attended the University of Vermont and lived in Montpelier until her death in 2018.

For St. Michael's 2004 centennial concert, directed by Lew, the Saint Michael's College Chorale performed "A Song for Saint Michael's," which Stoehr wrote in the 1940s to honor the school. In 2018, Lew and choral director Dawn Willis pored over the composer's catalog to select a program for Lew's a cappella group Counterpoint and Willis' Bella Voce and Solaris Vocal Ensemble.

The quality varied, Lew recalled. "There were some fabulous pieces, and then sometimes he wrote six songs in a morning."

Stoehr composed within the classical tradition he had inherited, but in his own distinctive voice, Koch said. In his first CD's liner notes, the cellist writes that Stoehr's four Fantasy pieces "evoke the world of [Robert] Schumann and [Johannes] Brahms."

While Stoehr played and taught the work of avant-garde composers such as Anton Webern and Alban Berg in Vienna, Lew said, "the music he composed was of a more Romantic style. People going to the concerts will hear something like [Richard] Strauss, but not as lyrical."

The music Stoehr composed in Vienna is "dark," Lew continued, but "when he gets to Vermont, his music is lighter in tone, more fun. I'm convinced it's because he wanted to fit the world of America in the 1940s."

Koch believes that Stoehr's oeuvre is worth preserving and hearing — not only because it's "just good," he said, but "because the Nazis wanted to suppress him. In Richard Stoehr's case, it worked, because he wasn't heard for decades."

Koch knows of no performances of Stoehr's cello music in the U.S. between his death in 1967 and Koch's first performances in 2011. The sesquicentennial concert will help acquaint new audiences with the composer's music and revive his legacy — in Stoehr's adopted state and, perhaps, beyond.

Correction, April 24, 2024: An earlier version of this story misidentified Dawn Willis.

Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra Spring Concert, "Trumpeting Spring" featuring Stoehr's Trumpet Concerto, Saturday, April 27, 7:30 p.m., at Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph and Sunday, April 28, 2 p.m., at the Barre Opera House. $5-25.

Richard Stoehr Sesquicentennial Concert, Friday, May 3, at the McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall, St. Michael's College, in Colchester, 7:30 p.m. Donations.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Happy Returns | Two performances highlight a nearly forgotten Viennese composer with Vermont ties"

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