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Jewish Journal

Music That Heals

A musical sleuth brings German exiles' music back to the people

by Naomi Pfefferman

July 15, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Whenever John Mauceri conducts the Israel Philharmonic, Israeli reporters ask him why an Italian Catholic is so preoccupied with Holocaust refugee composers.

During a concert of Broadway music, Mauceri may speak of the great German theatrical composer Kurt Weill, who fled the Nazis and made a new career in New York. During a tribute to Universal's film music, he may breezily mention the Holocaust refugee composers who resettled in Hollywood.

"I like to remind people about the emigre composers, because the level of ignorance about them is terrifying." said Mauceri, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. "They have virtually been eliminated from the history books. For complex and fairly dark reasons, I think, their music has not been played."

For the past decade, internationally-renowned Mauceri, 53, has become an activist for the lost music. He has recorded CD's of Weill's work and of the entartete musik banned by Hitler. He has made the performance of film music a mandate of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. And next year, he will complete an expose of the Holocaust's effect on 20th century music that will no doubt raise eyebrows.

As the recipient of the prestigious Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin, Mauceri will spend his time at the Academy's historic, lakeside villa finishing a book, "The War on Music." The tome will explore how anti-Semitism and other forces changed the face of classical music after World War II. Yes, the book will be controversial, Mauceri admits; yes, it may hurt his conducting career. "The topic is dangerous," he says, "but in a way, I've been chosen to pursue this music. No one else is doing it, so I truly know I can't stop."

Mauceri was born in 1945, his soul "conceived at a time when so many people were losing their lives in the Holocaust." He was only four when he first saw images of concentration camp victims on TV; images that burned into his brain.

His obsession with refugee composers began while he was a student at Yale, where he discovered that the film music he had loved as a child was conspicuously absent from the curriculum. "Then, accidentally, I would come across a composer like Wolfgang Erich Korngold, whose music was conducted by Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter in Europe before the war," Mauceri said.

But the work that Korngold composed in Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis was spurned as "kitch," as was all the music composed for the movies by the exiles Max Steiner and Franz Waxman. Even many of the works composed by Weill and Arnold Schoenberg in America were dismissed as inferior and hardly ever played. Mauceri studied the refugees' "American" works and found many of them to be wonderful. "So why, I wondered, hadn't I ever heard any of this music or, in many instances, even learned the composers' names?"

To discover why, Mauceri became a musical sleuth, conducting interviews with music professionals around the world. Their responses were telling. In Austria, one director of a concert hall referred to the exiles' American work as "inconvenient music."

"Many people who were active in the Nazi party or who found a way to live within the Nazi regime were still running symphony orchestras, conservatories and radio stations after the war," Mauceri explains. "During the Reich, they had not played certain music for racial reasons. And after the war, the refugee composers were still alive and living in America, the country that had vanquished Germany. Do you think these people were going to call up Kurt Weill in New York and say, 'please bring us the music you've been composing since you left?' Not at all."

"I believe there was a 'gentlemen's agreement' to dismiss all the music written in America by saying it was not particularly good. ... You didn't have to call it 'Jewish' music; you could call it 'kitch.' It was a way of removing something painful and embarrassing from the concert hall."

The American musical establishment, which has always looked to Europe for trends in classical music, followed suit, and the music disappeared.

The post-war "gentlemen's agreement," Mauceri believes, was one reason it took him 15 years to bring Weill's epic opera, "The Eternal Road," to the stage, a career-long ambition. Written not long after Weill fled Germany, the opera tells of a synagogue congregation huddling together in the face of impending doom. "It is Weill's unknown masterpiece," says Mauceri, who "felt fear and a terrible sadness" the first time he perused the score. But opera companies everywhere declined to produce the piece-until the city of Chemnitz in the former East Germany took on the expensive production last month.

Mauceri, of course, was the conductor during the sold-out performances, which concluded with cheers and ovations. "It was so unbelievably moving," he recalls. "My cast was mostly German and non-Jewish, and they had to don pais and learn how to kiss the tallis. You could see the tremendous pain and catharsis they felt as Germans portraying Jews in a city that had had its own Krystallnacht in 1938." Mauceri will conduct the opera in Israel and New York later this year.

While in Chemnitz, he also conducted a benefit concert for the synagogue the city wants to build for its small but burgeoning Jewish population; the repertoire consisted of music composed by German exiles in the U.S. During the concert, Mauceri made a speech about "bringing German music back to Germany;" thundrous applause followed the performance. "I believe this music has the power to bring people together," he says. "It has the power to heal."

For information about Mauceri's concerts at the Hollywood Bowl this summer, call 323/ 850-2000.


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