I

n the program note for his most recent play, Belfast playwright David Ireland claims that ‘he became a playwright after being unemployed and unemployable as an actor for three years, despite having trained as an actor for three years at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and performing with many UK companies ...’ On the basis of Ulster American, it seems a pretty canny career move.

First produced at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this blistering satire on theatre, society, theatre and society, both Irelands, politics, Brexit, and narcissistic thespians grabs the audience from the outset and never lets up. In a modest, serviced apartment, an egotistical American-based actor of Irish descent and a fey, self-centred English director come together the evening before rehearsals are due to begin to talk about the script they are intent on turning into a West End hit – with or without the support of the author.

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    In the program note for his most recent play, Belfast playwright David Ireland claims that ‘he became a playwright after being unemployed and unemployable as an actor for three years, despite having trained as an actor for three years at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama ... 

  • Review Rating 5.0

If one were tempted to cast round for a theme or a set of motifs that could be discerned from this year’s Adelaide Festival, it might be Rilke’s ‘Who speaks of victory? To endure/survive is all.’ Not as a default position, but as a celebration of those left behind, of those who tell the stories of those who have struggled and, in some, cases, survived; in others, alas, not.

Brink’s staging/enactment/translation into musical, visual and theatrical terms of Alice Oswald’s great poem Memorial (2011) (★★★★) encompasses both the elegiac and the celebratory in its approach to conveying and expanding on the world of the original. The book-length poem, as its author indicates, is an attempt to translate not the story but the atmosphere of the Iliad, seeking to retrieve what she, along with ancient critics, referred to as the work’s ‘energeia’.

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    If one were tempted to cast round for a theme or a set of motifs that could be discerned from this year’s Adelaide Festival, it might be Rilke’s ‘Who speaks of victory? To endure/survive is all.’ Not as a default position, but as a celebration of those left behind, of those who tell the stories of those who have struggled and ...

This study, which first appeared in German in 2011, was hailed at the time as definitive: properly so, as it incorporates so many aspects from so many areas of research. It marks a significant contribution to such fields as musicology, cultural history, the relationship between art and politics – not just in the Nazi era, but the periods preceding that, which saw the emergence of the two orchestras – and the role of the state and of the audience in shaping repertoire, and the relationship between the orchestra and the media.

The introduction manages the difficult task of summarising the crucial historical issue of ‘two cities, two orchestras’ while also reminding the reader of more contemporary questions such as the ‘German sound’ of the Berlin Philharmonic – which led to what the author describes as a ‘hot debate ... [which] emerged from a polemic against the principal conductor of the orchestra, Simon Rattle’ – versus the Vienna Philharmonic’s approach, which ‘hews neither to the German sound nor even an Austrian one’. These convenient shorthand descriptions are deftly set against each other and analysed, even before the author spells out the work’s primary aim.

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  • Custom Article Title Michael Morley reviews 'The Political Orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich' by Fritz Trümpi, translated by Kenneth Kronenberg
  • Contents Category Music
  • Book Title The Political Orchestra
  • Book Author Fritz Trümpi
  • Book Subtitle The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich
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Tuesday, 26 April 2016 15:43

Letters to the Editor - May 2016

ARDUOUS PATH

Dear Editor,

Susan Sheridan's review of Marianne Van Velzen's retelling of the extraordinary life of Ernestine Hill, Call of the Outback (April 2016), while very positive overall, drew attention to the absence of any substantial quotes from Hill and the book's failure to reproduce any of Hill's vast archive of wonderful photographs. Sadly, and unknown to your reviewer, this was a situation forced upon the author and her publisher.

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    Letters to the Editor in the May issue of Australian Book Review

In an interview from 1978, the year of Nicolas Nabokov's death (he was born in 1903 in Lubcza, now in Belarus), which is included in the epilogue to this volume, Isaiah Berlin summed up some of the qualities of the cosmopolitan figure he seems to have considered his best friend:

He was a very cultivated man: I found him to be one of the most civilized men I ever met, a perfect representative of the pre-Russian Revolution intelligentsia. He had mastered vast amounts of knowledge, had wide horizons and a wonderful imagination; he was also one of the warmest and most sympathetic of men ... His charm was extraordinary.

Judging by the array of figures who parade through the pages of this study, Nikolai Dmitrievich Nabokov seems to have been on first-name terms with just about everybody who was anybody in twentieth-century arts and culture. He was a close friend, if occasional adversary, of Stravinsky, knew Prokofiev, was a colleague of Balanchine, Lifar, Virgil Thomson, Igor Markevitch, Auden, Arthur Schlesinger – the list goes on. Giroud's tenacity and thoroughness in tracking down every little detail relating to Nabokov's constant travels and fondness for parties and social occasions, and his use of a series of archives as well as Nabokov's own, are admirable and systematic.

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  • Custom Article Title Michael Morley reviews 'Nicholas Nabokov: A Life in Freedom and Music' by Vincent Giroud
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  • Book Author Vincent Giroud
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  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $47.95 hb, 577 pp, 9780199399895

Over decades of productions in the Festival Theatre, I can recall a handful of experiences that resulted in immediate, unprompted, and collective standing ovations, beginning with the unforgettable journey that was Richard Wherrett's epic staging of Nicholas Nickleby (1983). Pina Bausch's dance-theatre piece Nelken (Carnations) joined this list during the Adelaide Festival's final week – along with an earlier, prompted moment of complete audience participation.

Ten to fifteen minutes before the show's close, the cast invited the audience to rise to their feet and learn four basic arm/hand movements. Usually, such invitations result in scattered groups standing and following instructions in a desultory fashion. Not so on this occasion. The audience was immediately up, ready and participating in the action: so much so, that a group of women in the row in front of me also started trying to replicate the set of complex choreographed signs and movements, suggesting the four seasons, that the cast had just been performing.

This is one of the defining characteristics of Bausch's dance-theatre: the invitation to the audience to respond to, and participate in, the seemingly fragmented series of games, set-pieces, and animated tableaux that make up her productions. It may be easy to identify the forerunners of her style. Dada has its (updated and revivified) place, as does collage-theatre: but what sets Bausch apart from would-be deconstructors of theatrical narrative is the sure sense that the sequence of events and tableaux is anything but arbitrary on the one hand, or contrived on the other.

There is something of the logic of a dream to her dramaturgy, along with an invitation to the audience to abandon a response based on rational and causal logic, opting instead for an emotional identification with the images, a sense of shared intimacy even in the large-scale moments. These images can encompass children's games; two figures standing centre stage with children's buckets and small shovels, scattering earth over their heads; a solitary topless female figure in hot pants, carrying an accordion, wandering through the vast expanse of silk carnations; four figures with Alsatians, controlling a crowd of cowed dancers; a solitary male dancer in a dress, anticipating traditionalist objections from the audience and showing that he can also do standard pirouettes, jetées, and the like.

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AF Nelken Credit Tony Lewis 03 smallerNelken (photograph by Tony Lewis)

 

And accompanying it all, one of the hallmarks of Bausch's theatre: her unerring choice of music from across styles and periods. It is no accident that the song that opens the show, with its astonishing image of a stage calf-deep in green-stemmed silk carnations, is a popular tune with the refrain 'The world is beautiful, when happiness tells you a fairy tale.'

Last year, the marvellous UK-based company Gandini Juggling brought to the Fringe its hour-long tribute to/humorous pastiche of Bausch's work Smashed. It had all the characteristics of its inspiration: precision, wit, flair, and grace. And something else, so conspicuously lacking in Castelluci's limp attempt at a revolutionary dramaturgy.

AF Nelken Credit Tony Lewis 10 smallerNelken (photograph by Tony Lewis)

 

As it happens, I had seen the work in Edinburgh with the pianist Alfred Brendel. As the lights came up, he murmured to me: 'That is the kind of theatre that makes you glad to be alive.' Which is precisely the feeling that one takes away from Bausch herself.

Nelken (Carnations): Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2016, 9 to 12 March 2016. Performance attended: 11 March.

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    Over decades of productions in the Festival Theatre, I can recall a handful of experiences that resulted in immediate, unprompted, and collective standing ovations, beginning with the unforgettable journey that was Richard Wherrett's epic staging of Nicholas Nickleby (1983). Pina Bausch's ...

  • Review Rating 5.0
Monday, 07 March 2016 09:44

Adelaide Festival of Arts 2016

The two high-profile theatre productions featured at this year's Adelaide Festival – the National Theatre of Scotland's imaginative and engaging account of the life and times of the three King Jameses, The James Plays Trilogy (★★★★), and Romeo Castellucci's mostly impenetrable take on, supposedly, some aspects of the life of Moses, Go Down Moses (0 stars) – could not have been more different in their dramaturgy or the treatment of the relationship between stage and audience.

In some respects, director Laurie Sansom and playwright Rona Munro's approach to presenting an interlocking series of unfamiliar historical incidents and scenes in three plays, ranging over a period of almost one hundred years, might be considered conventional: they use an established dramaturgy, which, while owing something to the writer's experience in television drama (Doctor Who, Casualty, Bumping the Odds), also honours the theatre's approach to a narrative of political sweep and personal intensity. But the staging is throughout a model of clarity, intensity, colour, and, yes, dramatic urgency.

A few years back, the same company brought their astonishing Blackwatch to the Sydney Festival, and many of the techniques familiar from that unforgettable production are deployed here to similar effect: brilliantly choreographed fight scenes; effective use of musical interludes and songs; sudden shifts from intimate, intense scenes to large-scale exchanges of viewpoints and the give and take of arguments set on more public platforms; imaginative, beautifully gauged lighting design along with strong and never over-elaborate stage design that really does merit the term scenography; and, at the centre of it all, a focus on the actor's presence and command of space.

I feel fairly certain that I would not have been the only member of the audience to whom the names James I, II, and III of Scotland, and their connection to English kings and the wider political issues of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, were entirely unfamiliar. But the plays, which could so easily have slid into formulaic history lessons interleaved with high-profile moments of personal drama, managed the balance of instruction and entertainment effortlessly. If at times, as in the latter sections of James III, it felt as if the domestic, intra-personal elements were pushing the larger issues into the wings, and we were marking time before the next public event, this is a minor objection, given the scale and ambition of the undertaking.

Some might also object to Rona Munro's choice of a completely contemporary idiom for telling the stories: but sooner that, surely, than any attempt at a cod-Shakespearian, self-consciously poetic and theatrical language, which would obscure the narrative and bog down the actors. The directness of the dialogue and, when called for, its toughness and forcefulness, is the linguistic equivalent of the strength and imposing directness of the stage design. Dominated by a huge sword looming stage left, and bounded by a half-circle amphitheatre behind, which offers catwalks, stairs, different levels, a set of doors which can open and crash down as a large drawbridge, a towering flight of steps leading up to a throne, two vomitoria-type entrances, and limited seating for some audience members, this stage space is an essential element of the three plays' dramaturgy.

But spaces do not just a theatre make: and especially in this case, the cast of twenty, playing a huge variety of roles, offer a startling range of characterisations. From Rosemary Boyle's carefully and deftly shaped depiction of the very young Joan's journey from English noblewoman to the more complex figure who becomes the wife of James I; through Steven Miller's perfectly pitched approach to the psychology of the James I who, after eighteen years in English captivity, emerges into a world he has not even begun to imagine; Blythe Duff's expertly differentiated portraits of two remarkable women – Isabella Stewart and Annabella, James III's aunt; and Andrew Rothney's trio of entirely unrelated characters – Walter Stewart, James II and Cochrane; the entire ensemble demonstrate a versatility and flexibility which are crucial to this type of theatre.

AF James Plays Trilogy Credit Russell Millard 11 smallerThe James Plays Trilogy (photograph by Russell Millard)

 

I suppose the smaller ensemble of Romeo Castellucci's Go Down Moses were also required to offer versatility, given that the characters appear to range from a collection of modern-day tourists or random figures on a street, past police officers, and social workers before mutating into what I think were naked savages (the lighting was so murky it was hard to be sure). The one thing they weren't asked to do by either director or 'text' was to offer anything approximating to meaning.

In forty years of Adelaide Festival theatre offerings, I had always thought that Jan Fabre's indulgent exercise in brutalising both his cast and the audience – the climax of his The Power of Theatrical Madness (1986) offered the uplifting, endlessly repeated image of naked women trying to climb back onto the Playhouse stage from which they had been brutally ejected by their male colleagues, while the males recited the date of the opening of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre – represented a nadir of theatrical meaninglessness. Romeo Castellucci's version of something apparently connected to Moses leaves Jan Fabre for dead.

An actor colleague has a remarkably evocative image to sum up theatrical experiences that might profitably have been avoided: 'I had rather given birth to a chair in the woods.' Well, Go Down Moses is actually a two-chair experience. It begins harmlessly enough, with a group of eight performers moving round a milkily lit, elongated rectangular stage box, separated from the audience by a tautly hung scrim. (After five minutes of the ensemble's wandering, I did seek to focus my mind by trying to work out whether it might have actually been a vast sheet of particularly flexible and light perspex: but, given the use to which is put later in the production, no.)

This wandering, accosting, moving on, stopping, is all reminiscent of Pina Bausch, though without an ounce of her precision and grace. But inoffensive, though pointless. However, I did keep wondering why, at times, some of the strollers kept stopping and apparently measuring others for something (Dior? Satin bomber jackets, or some latest vogue outfit?). More of which later...

But nothing from the muted, detached images of the opening could have prepared the viewer for what came next. A scene set in a high, enclosed, stark, and brightly lit space, prominently featuring a toilet, where a woman is spread across the floor, noisily and endlessly giving birth, while at the same time coming close to exhausting Adelaide's stocks of stage blood. I can only assume the outcome was meant to be Moses, but the irreverent thought did cross my mind that, back in Egypt, childbirth might have been not quite so interminably messy. And at least the Nile would have been close by. After some hours (well, minutes) of this, I began taking bets with myself as to what the next scene might offer: a deserted industrial wasteland? A hospital morgue or dilapidated waiting room with lots of dustbins? A social worker's office?

I was sort of close: it was actually a stage deserted (but for a large industrial waste dumpster, packed to the brim, and featuring as a piece of ingenious performance art a large black plastic bag in which something was moving. (No prizes for wondering whether it might be Moses.) I must confess I got the next two scenes wrong as well: the first was a police inspector's office with the unfortunate mother from the toilet being interrogated about her problematic parental abilities (I'm pretty sure there was, however, a female social worker flitting in and out); the second was an antiseptic hospital space, with a large cat scan machine, into which the mother is inserted, to the accompaniment of more noise than I have ever heard inside said machines, of which I have, alas, some experience.

I could never have predicted the following and final scene: a dimly lit, towering cave occupying about half the stage space,and featuring a cast of figures and a scenario which, I think, may have been a mash-up of that overlooked cinematic masterpiece One Million Years BC, and two or three instalments from the Planet of The Apes franchise. What this had to do with Moses unfortunately escaped me, more or less round the time that one of the 'noble savage' females looked to be either barbecuing or about to casserole a newly born figure which could have been another Moses, while bearing a passing resemblance to that scary little figure from Alien.

AF Go Down Moses Credit Tony Lewis 06 smallerGo Down Moses
(photograph by Tony Lewis)

 

I also have to confess that I could not actually give my undivided attention to the stage action for the last twenty-five hours (sorry, minutes) as I was forced to keep both fingers in my ears to shut out the industrial music soundtrack that invaded the auditorium. I've heard of white sound, and its offshoots: this was blood-red, ears-bleeding sound, the like of which I have never heard either in a theatre or at rock concerts, standing next to the speakers. (I have also attended theatre productions elsewhere where ear plugs are offered to the audience: no such luck here, where one was assaulted by a sound worse than standing next to a pair of jet engines.)

There is theatre of the absurd, theatre of cruelty, epic theatre, etc., etc. This was EP theatre: theatre of excruciating pretentiousness (what on earth poor Albrecht Dürer's rabbit had to do with anything on view escaped me completely). And my own retrospective gloss on the opening's measuring activities came up with: winding shrouds. As for the title? If Castellucci is intent on using an American spiritual for his title, might I suggest an alternative? – Massa Drama's In De Cold, Cold Ground.

Adelaide Festival of Arts 2016 runs from 26 Feb to 14 March 2016.

Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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    The two high-profile theatre productions featured at this year's Adelaide Festival – the National Theatre of Scotland's imaginative and engaging account of the life and times of the three King Jameses, The James Plays Trilogy, and Romeo Castellucci's mostly impenetrable take on ...

By now, it is more or less de rigueur to prefix comments on Benjamin Grosvenor's abilities at the keyboard by mentioning his age. Well, yes, it has to be said that, at twenty-three, there is more than a touch of the Wunderkind about what he does. But make no mistake: this is a serious, talented, imaginative, and committed musician who makes some of his more hyped competitors seem, by comparison, adolescent and lacking in both range and insight.

All other qualities aside, he is refreshingly devoid of mannerisms and flourishes in both his demeanour and approach to the music he plays. No extravagant head-tossing, no languid flourishes of hands or arms that might contribute to ... well, what? Certainly not the music. Clearly, for Grosvenor, the music is foremost. In some respects his interpretative approach might even be seen as a touch old-fashioned, if by that we mean responsive to the composer's instructions, clear about what he wants to do with a particular piece, and, above all, and always, putting the music first, along with the task of communicating its distinctive character to the audience.

Grosvenor clearly has respect for the text and knows that works have to sound like themselves rather than like some endless assembly line where Rachmaninov can sound like Liszt, Schumann like Scriabin, and vice versa. In a recital which ranged from Mendelssohn through Chopin, Ravel, and Liszt, and offered a beautifully shaped and wholly idiomatic encore of Percy Grainger's arrangement of George Gershwin's 'Love Walked In', Grosvenor's mastery of a singing line, sure sense of structure, and an astonishing technical fluency that never drew attention to itself, suggested that he is not just a star in the making but a pianist who is already there.

Moreover, in decades of recital-going, I have never heard a live performance of the four works with which he opened his program – the two Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues from Op.35 (in this case, E and and F Minor). Both the works themselves and his reading of them were revelatory, while also indicating how Grosvenor is not shy of tossing in technically challenging works at the start of a programme. Not for him an easing in to the recital: the E Minor Prelude asks for the performer to throw himself into a deep end of cascading notes from the outset, a challenge which Grosvenor sailed through with ridiculous ease.

Benjamin Grosvenor (photograph by Operaomnia)Benjamin Grosvenor (photograph by Operaomnia)

'He is refreshingly devoid of mannerisms and flourishes in both his demeanour and approach to the music he plays'

Even more impressive, however, was the musicianship he brought to the readings of all four works, which, while acknowledging their Bach connections, are also far more than academic, pallid tributes to the master. As Schumann pointed out at the time, in a somewhat florid, though heartfelt tribute to their composer, 'If Bach were to arise from the grave, he would be glad that composers like Mendelssohn are still growing flowers in the field where he had planted those oak forests with such gigantic branches.' But he also emphasised the distinctive qualities of the works – their cantilena (especially in the E Minor Fugue) and the fact that they avoid Bach-like affectations and introduce a really poetic element (along with seriously demanding passage work and staccato flourishes).

The Chopin that followed – the Barcarolle, two Mazurkas Op.63 No.2 and Op. 30 No.4, and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante – showed that Grosvenor is also completely at home in the sound-world of the composer. While the opening sections of the Barcarolle sounded a little matter of fact, the piece soon settled, and the runs on the last page were a marvel of evenness, what the Germans call 'Fingerfertigkeit' (sort of translatable as 'digital dexterity'), and elegant shaping. And the Mazurkas, comparatively unfamiliar, were as idiomatic as one could wish, effortlessly combining the poetic with the dramatic.

benjain gorsvenor pics from mso website smaller for online(photograph by Operaomnia)

'He is not just a star in the making but a pianist who is already there'

The same qualities were also to the fore in the two works that closed the first half; and the leap from these to Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, which opened the second, seemed just a small, not especially difficult, step for Grosvenor. While the opening of the Prelude sounded a little rushed and blurred, the opening theme's return was far clearer and precise, and from then on the listener realised that the performer was as much at home in this neo-classical realm as in the works of the first half. The Fugue was crystal-clear and plangent, its final bars exquisitely shaped; the dotted figure of the Forlane poised and penetrating; the Rigaudon's emphatic dance elements exuberantly realised; and the Menuet and closing Toccata by turns elegant and scintillating.

And the Liszt Venezia e Napoli reinforced what had come before: beautiful evenness of tone right across the registers, astonishing accuracy of the repeated notes in the Tarantella, and a placing and voicing of the hanging chords in the final two lines of the Gondoliera which were simply spell-binding.

Benjamin Grosvenor Recital, Recitals Australia, Elder Hall, University of Adelaide. Performance attended: 8 November 2015. Benjamin Grosvenor plays the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on November 13 (Geelong) and November 14 (Melbourne).

Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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Whereas library shelves tend to sag beneath the weight of volumes penned by, and intended for, theatre actors and directors, the number of comparable handbooks, instruction manuals, and studies pitched at their cinematic colleagues is rather thinner on the ground. To be sure, there are crucial works by David Mamet, Patrick Tucker, and Janet Sonnenberg, along with books such as Michael Caine’s more anecdotal Acting in Film (1990). But Judith Weston’s central study Directing Actors, which Sally Potter’s book most closely resembles, is already more than fifteen years old, and much has happened both behind and in front of the lens (not to mention the editing room) since its appearance.

In her chatty and deliberately informal introduction, Potter offers a series of preliminary answers to her own question, ‘So why write a book about working with actors?’, which the book itself then addresses in more – at times repetitive – detail. In its structure, her study falls into a loose theory/practice division (though the author insists on the connection between the two.) The first three parts consider, in sequence: Preparation; The Shoot; and Post-Production; while the fourth part consists of fourteen extensive interviews with a number of actors, including Julie Christie, Steve Buscemi, Judi Dench, Jude Law, and Timothy Spall. (One notable omission here is Tilda Swinton, star of Potter’s Orlando, 1992.)

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  • Custom Article Title Michael Morley reviews 'Naked Cinema' by Sally Potter
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  • Book Author Sally Porter
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  • Biblio Faber & Faber, $39.99 pb, 438 pp, 9780571304998
Wednesday, 23 July 2014 11:36

Complicated dealings

For all their differences of subject matter and approach (not to mention style), both of these studies can be seen as belonging to the category of what might be termed archaeological history. That is, they are concerned with retrieving and bringing to the surface a gallery of characters and set of important stories and connections which have been either suppressed or ignored.

In the case of Michael Haas’s account of the obliteration of an entire generation of (mostly) Jewish composers and musicians, the process was, of course, implemented by the appalling policies of the Nazis. One of the more sobering aspects of his study is that, in spite of his own considerable efforts as a Decca record producer with the series ‘Entartete [literally: degenerate] Musik’, only a few of these composers have managed to re-establish themselves in the concert or opera repertoire.

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  • Custom Article Title Michael Morley reviews two books on Hitler’s impact on film and music
  • Contents Category Hollywood
  • Book Title FORBIDDEN MUSIC:
  • Book Author Michael Haas
  • Book Subtitle THE JEWISH COMPOSERS BANNED BY THE NAZIS
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  • Biblio Yale University Press (Inbooks), $39.95 pb, 376 pp, 9780300154306
  • Book Title 2 HOLLYWOOD AND HITLER
  • Book Author 2 Thomas Doherty
  • Biblio 2 Columbia University Press (Footprint), $54.95 hb, 448 pp, 9780231163927
  • Book Cover 2 Small Book Cover 2 Small
  • Author Type 2 Author
  • Book Cover 2 Book Cover 2
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