Eve combines classical music with history to stun audiences

By Doreen Wachmann

AMERICAN concert pianist and Ensemble for the Romantic Century director Eve Wolf has been playing the piano since the age of three.

It was while her father was dying, when Eve was only two, that she set her sights on learning the instrument.

She told me: "We had a piano in the house, but almost every key was stuck."

She would learn by ear before she could read.

Because of her father's ill-health, Eve's mother moved with her into her grandparents' home.

Her grandmother was from the highly-cultured city of Vienna.

Eve was the first member of her family to have a musical talent, which was highly rated in her family of Viennese origins.

She said: "In Vienna it was considered one of the highest things you could do in life was to either be a doctor or a musician.

"Everything was about being an intellectual or a musician. It was very Viennese. They had a high regard for music."

Eve became both, a musician and an intellectual, although she hesitates to call her work intellectual, wanting to make it easily accessible for all.

Ensemble for the Romantic Century, which she founded 17 years ago, combines classical music with original historic sources to provide unique, graphic depictions of the lives of historical figures.

Next month, in New York venue BAM Fisher, the ERC will stage The Dreyfus Affair, an authentic historical and musical drama which Eve considers is highly relevant in today's world of increasing antisemitism, racism, nationalism and populism.

Although she no longer considers herself religious, Eve said: "I feel extremely Jewish. I don't feel anything else. Being Jewish is one of the main things that informs my sense of self and my way of looking at the world.

"Being Jewish means a sense of justice, being analytical and questioning things."

Eve's grandparents were Orthodox and socialist.

She said: "For them all the rituals were a very normal part of life.

"We had people of every sort and religion at our Shabbat dinners. When you walked into their little house you felt you were not in America.

"You felt like you were in Europe with Austro-Hungarian food, borscht, stuffed cabbage and kiddush and honey cake.

"They read newspapers in many languages. It gave me the feeling I was in exile. There was a profound Jewish life at home. It was very natural, not self-conscious, part of the normal course of things."

With their admiration for music, her grandparents indulged little Eve's musical cravings and bought her what she calls "a wonderful little spinet" which she still has and is very fond of.

She said: "I don't use it. I have a Steinway Grand. But it is very sentimental."

Fortunately for Eve's musical career her mother remarried a wealthy man when she was nine.

They moved out of Jersey City to the New Jersey suburb of Short Hills and Eve's family were able to afford music tuition for her from some of the best music teachers in the world.

But Eve was not satisfied just with her music prowess.

She said: "I wanted to have an education that wasn't just music. I studied many other things."

She gained her BA in art history, but it was her passion for biographies which led her to found the ERC 17 years ago.

She recalled: "The year before I founded the ERC I was reading the letters of Clara and Robert Schumann."

The letters described the passionate love affair between the two young musicians who had to go to court to gain Clara's father's permission to marry.

Eve interspersed Schumann music with readings from the letters in a performance called Lawsuits for Love for the New York Bar Association.

She said: "The musicians, audience and I loved it. It was so much fun. It was a completely different experience.

"When musicians perform they have a lot of stories in their heads. When I am performing I have in my head lots of things, the letters, life and times of the composer. I like to pretend I am in the other century.

"The audience is often disconnected from this information.

"That's when I decided to found the Ensemble for the Romantic Century. I realised that this was a wonderful way to hear music in an historical context.

"All the words are from primary sources, diaries, memoirs, papers and interviews. It's actually gripping to hear music and see costumes and lighting in the context of a script which has real sources, not fictionalised."

She said: "When people attend, you can hear a pin drop. At concerts, people cough or stop listening. But at my productions people are really engrossed. It is really fun. There is nothing like it."

The ERC has produced 40 musical and historical productions on the lives of composers, artists, writers, philosophers and other notable figures.

Eve's first production of The Dreyfus Affair was 10 years ago. But her coming production is on a much bigger scale and the script has been substantially revised.

As the Dreyfus Affair split late 19th century French society, so is the music, which Eve has chosen for the production, split between anti and pro-semitic.

On the antisemitic sides are pieces by Vincent d'Indy, who led a French movement, similar to that of Wagner in Germany, to rid French music of any semitic influences, and by Rameau, whose music was considered pure French.

Pro-semitic works include Ravel's Hebrew Songs, Halevy's La Juive and a 1960s work by Holocaust survivor Gyorgy Ligeti. These are all interwoven with readings from historical material.

Eve said: "Unfortunately the Dreyfus Affair is a very timely subject with the rise of nationalism in France and all of Europe.

"It has eerie similarities with today's populism in Europe and America.

"The forces of good are fighting that. This production focuses on the fight against injustice. Writer Emile Zola and Lucie and Alfred Dreyfus were unbelievable. They never gave up.

"People like Georges Picquart believed in the truth against the fake news of the press."

She added: "Right now as we are putting the final touches to the script, which has been revised many times, I can't believe it. It feels like today. I turn on the TV and hear about the complex cover-ups in our government.

"They are using the same words as were used in the Dreyfus Affair. Oh my God, it's eerie!"

She continued: "When you read Zola's J'Accuse, it gives you the shivers because it could happen today in America or Europe.

"In France now there is a direct line from the Dreyfus Affair to the Vichy government and now to Marine Le Pen. There are the same ideas and the same authoritarian nationalism.

"The Dreyfus Affair is not solved. It is still seething in a funny way like a resistant infection. We need people of bravery to speak out."

Eve's productions have toured North and South America and Italy, but haven't been to the UK.

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph