Guest artists to revive music by Richard Stöhr for GVSU concert

Jenny Adkins

The effects of the Holocaust still plague the world years later. For cellist Stefan Koch, the story of composer Richard Stöhr’s life and legacy is a testament to this notion, and his journey to illuminate the shadows inflicted by the Nazis will come to Grand Valley State University on Wednesday, Jan. 17, with the Academy Trio’s performance of Stöhr’s Piano Trio, Op. 16. The concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Sherman Van Solkema Recital Hall in the Haas Center for Performing Arts.

Koch will be partnering with pianist Mary Siciliano and violinist Laura Roelofs for the group’s performance, which will be one of the first times the piece will have been performed in the U.S. With Stöhr’s music being widely unknown outside of Europe, GVSU cello professor Pablo Mahave-Veglia said the concert is an opportunity to share the formerly unheard of but masterfully crafted music.

“Richard Stöhr is actually a very interesting guy,” Mahave-Veglia said. “(Composer Leonard) Bernstein speaks very highly of him as his musical influence, as a theorist, a musicologist, but we have not heard so much or known so much of (Stöhr’s own) pieces. But lo and behold, (Koch) has gone and resurrected this music that has lived in relative obscurity.”

Stöhr, a Jewish immigrant originally from Austria, fled his home during the rise of the Nazi regime around 1938 but maintained his status in musical education by teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia before ultimately moving to Vermont. While Stöhr was well-known for teaching famous musicians and composers like Bernstein, his collection of his own music was kept in Europe until his later life, which was a visible attempt to silence his Jewish voice, Koch said.

“Even though the Holocaust feels like ancient history in a way—something that happened a long time ago in our lifetimes—it’s still having an impact on the world today,” Koch said. “The Nazis first and foremost wanted to silence the Jews, especially Jewish artists, thinkers, intellectuals. In the case of Richard Stöhr, that actually happened. … I just think that we can’t let that happen to good composers.”

Koch’s studies on Stöhr began when he met his grandson in Chicago who had introduced him to Stöhr’s cello music, which Koch loved instantly. He said that through visits to colleges where Stöhr taught in the state and in Vienna, Austria, he tried to hear and gather as much information about the composer’s music as he could to bring the pieces to the U.S. 

“I’ve listened to everything that I can get my hands on of his completed works,” Koch said. “I’ve heard maybe 10 percent or 15 percent; the rest has never been performed. They haven’t been performed by anyone living—they haven’t been heard by anyone living—and so I can’t really say I know his music the way I know Beethoven’s music because I’ve heard almost everything (of Beethoven’s).”

While Koch has worked to record previously hidden music of Stöhr’s, the opportunity to play at GVSU also offers the chance to educate and inspire audience members, especially music students. 

“I like it when I see young people in the audience because that’s the future, and I’d like people to remember Richard Stöhr,” Koch said. “Someday soon or someday later on, when they’re all professional, (I hope they) try and get some of his music and play it.”

For Mahave-Veglia, the revival of Stöhr’s music at GVSU through the Academy Trio’s concert proves that great music is everywhere, even if it hasn’t been heard of yet. Mahave-Veglia said the concert is an opportunity to see how history and music intermingle while also discovering the work of a voice nearly silenced by the Holocaust.

“I think any music student would be familiar with the works of Beethoven and Brahms and Stravinsky, and here is a major work of art by a composer who they didn’t even know existed,” Mahave-Veglia said. “I hope it gives them the inspiration (to start) digging holes out there and finding the timeless (musical pieces) still out there in the pockets of history.”