The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s exploration of the music of Marcel Tyberg is going global.

A contingent of Buffalonians returned recently from Croatia, where BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta conducted a local orchestra in the European premiere of Tyberg’s Symphony No. 2. Tyberg, who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis, had lived and composed in Rijeka, Croatia.

Buffalo became involved in the music of Tyberg thanks to Enrico (Henry) Mihich, a Buffalo cancer researcher whose family was from Croatia and knew Tyberg decades ago. They safeguarded Tyberg’s scores. Mihich was able to interest Falletta in the music, a complicated project funded by the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies. The music performed in Europe has already been premiered here and recorded by the BPO.

As a result of these various parties coming together, joy has come out of tragedy.

“These are the kinds of things I love in life,” says BPO board member Cindy Abbott Letro, one of the Buffalo team that went to Croatia. “To have something like that, totally disparate elements, things on different ends of the world, coming together! There’s this commonality, this music. The whole story – if someone had not taken a chance and saved this music anywhere along the line, it could have been lost.”

Peter Fleischmann of the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies, and his wife, Ilene, also made the trip to Croatia, along with Falletta’s husband, clarinetist Robert Alemany, and Mihich.

The homecoming was bittersweet for Mihich. As a boy, he had taken piano lessons from Tyberg. The Mihich family was forced to flee the Communists who took over after World War II. They left behind a beautiful villa on the water. It now has a restaurant in its basement.

“Henry [Mihich] took us all to dinner there,” Falletta says, but he was not permitted to view the rest of the home that was stolen from his family so long ago.

So many aspects of the Tyberg exploration reflect the upheavals of the last century. But there was exhilaration, too, as the visiting Buffalonians and the people of Rejika joined in celebrating Tyberg’s legacy.

“The musicologists there were doing parallel research,” Falletta says. “For the last two years they’ve really been working in earnest in trying to uncover details of Tyberg’s life. And they have. There was an amazing display, a museum-quality exhibition, about his family and where he lived.

“The thing they were missing was the music. They only have one piece of music by Tyberg, a set of organ preludes he had written for a friend, that was kept in the family. Based on those preludes, they started a search for Tyberg’s music. They realized we had the music, and the recordings.”

And so Buffalo met Rijeka.

“It was an intense cultural meeting,” Falletta says. “They want to hear more, want to perform more, want to take it to Germany and Austria and have them hear the music.

“At the same time, for them it feels a little strange that their music now is in Buffalo.”

Marble monument

Rijeka is a resort town on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.

“It’s like the Italian Riviera,” Falletta says. “It’s right on the seascape, with restaurants and wonderful old villas. It must have been a very wealthy seaside resort town, both for the Yugoslavians and the Germans, the Austrians.”

Tyberg tended to keep his more serious music secret. He was known during his lifetime for his dance music, written for a local hotel.

“It’s a fantastic hotel,” Falletta says. “The band probably played there every night. I was stunned by it. And the coastline of the Adriatic is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I can see why Henry was so regretful of having to leave.”

She was struck by how locals referred to Tyberg not as Marcel but as Marcello, suggesting he had Italian roots. A few came forward with photos.

All these details are valuable, because Tyberg is in some ways a vague figure.

Though he was Catholic – the sacred music he left behind includes a Christmas Mass – he is believed to have had some Jewish ancestry, which led to his death. Photos of him are few. Though artistically driven, Tyberg never seemed to care about advancing his career. When the Nazis invaded his town and his life was in danger, he tragically declined to flee.

“I think he was, as Henry has said, always kind of childlike,” Falletta says. “He was not an aggressive person. I think he was always considered kind of gentle. But he seemed beloved in the community.”

Croatian researchers have found the exact day Tyberg died. It was Dec. 31, 1944. Tyberg, born on Jan. 27, 1893, would have been 51.

Fleischmann was deeply moved to see Tyberg’s name on a town monument.

“It was beautiful, white marble, carved with the names of members of their community, the Jewish victims of the World War II era and the Nazis,” he says. “Tyberg’s name was on the monument. Being able to see it in person, the posthumous honor that they wanted to give their own citizens, is so inspiring.”

Visiting Rijeka, which had the Italian name of Fume, Falletta got a new perspective on Tyberg’s family.

“His mother and his father were both excellent musicians,” Falletta says. “His father taught violin. His mother taught piano; she was also a very fine pianist. We saw programs and posters of her concerts.

“We found our first symphony was played there,” she adds. “We think his mother made this happen, because it was on a program on which she played two piano concertos, the Schumann and the Paderewski, and first symphony was played in the second half of the program. It got a wonderful review.”

‘It continues to unfold’

Tyberg’s Second Symphony is romantic rather than revolutionary. But it is intricately conceived, which is one reason the scores Mihich had preserved took so long to be heard.

Falletta rehearsed the music with a local orchestra, and they performed it in the ornate Croatian National Theater. She confesses to feeling overwhelmed.

“It was unbelievable,” she says. “There was sort of a little feeling like being back home, that somehow he might know. He was in this theater a lot. ... It is like a little jewel box. Very old, lots of red velvet, and the ceiling was painted by Gustav Klimt.”

Letro says she will always remember the occasion.

“The people were visibly moved,” she says. “[JoAnn] was talking to the orchestra, speaking in Italian. They’ve never seen these scores before. Now they had to learn it within a week. ... Robert [Alemany] and I sat through the first rehearsal and it was so interesting to see the progression between that and the performance in this exquisite concert hall.”

One movement of the Second Symphony came into sharper focus, thanks to the Rijeka townspeople.

“They recognized it as local dance music,” Falletta says. “They recognized the tunes.”

The Buffalo / Rijeka adventure continues.

“It continues to unfold, in a very, very positive way,” Fleischmann says. “I think the Croatian government, the Croatian population, are looking for points of pride in their cultural heritage. This composer, who was very much one of them, whom they consider one of their own, having been murdered by the Nazis, and yet leaving this incredible body of creative work, could have easily just have been lost and never come to life.”

It is poignant that Tyberg could be seen as a universal figure. He was Jewish, he was Christian. He was a lighthearted artist and a serious artist. His name, heritage and music appear to reflect the multi-ethnic nature of Rijeka, not only Croatian but other nationalities including Italian, French, Austrian and German.

“The more we learn about Tyberg, it takes on larger context,” says Letro. “When you hear the music, I kept thinking of all the music that was lost during the Holocaust. All the music that will never be heard. The stories that were lost. It resonates.... It’s something we should never forget.”