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Jewish Journal

Shoah-Era Music ‘Silenced’ No More

by Tom Tugend

October 14, 2004 | 8:00 pm

The music of a lost generation of Jewish composers will come to life when the Los Angeles Philharmonic presents "Silenced Voices," a series of concerts, operas and panel discussions, from Oct. 19 to Nov. 9.

While mainly honoring the composers who were persecuted or perished during the Holocaust, the concerts will also feature the works of Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler, whose "degenerate" music was banned by the Nazis.

For conductor James Conlon, bringing the "beautiful and provocative" music of such composers as Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein and Bohuslav Martinu to international audiences has been a 10-year crusade.

"These men represented an enormous piece of the music and culture of the 20th century," Conlon passionately declared in a phone call from Montreal.

"Rediscovering their music is equivalent to a museum which suddenly finds 200 great paintings in its cellar -- of course, the museum would exhibit them for the public," he added.

"Silenced Voices" will open on Tuesday, Oct. 19, with the satirical opera "Der Kaiser von Atlantis" (The Emperor from Atlantis), which Ullmann composed while imprisoned in the Nazis' "model" camp of Teresienstadt (Terezin).

The protagonist is Emperor Overall, who brings such pain and misery to the world that Death arrives to take him, and everyone else, away. The SS apparently sensed some similarity between "The Emperor" and a contemporary dictator and shut down the work during rehearsals.

An L.A. Phil ensemble and Juilliard School singers will perform the staged production at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles.

On the following Thursday, Oct. 21, a discussion on the concept and context of "Silenced Voices" will be led by Conlon, Rabbis Steven Z. Leder and Gary Greenebaum and Dr. Gary Schiller of the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust. The event will be held on the Irmas campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in West Los Angeles.

The two temple evenings are sponsored by the Ziegler Family Trust, with additional support from the Jewish Community Foundation. All subsequent events will be at the downtown Disney Concert Hall.

Conlon and the Philharmonic will perform Ullmann's Symphony No. 2 and Mahler's Symphony No. 1 on Oct. 23 and 24.

On Oct. 29, 30 and 31, Conlon will lead the Philharmonic in Schulhoff's Jazz Suite, Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2, and Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 7.

Dvorak is the only non-Jewish composer represented in the series, but as a composer and Czech nationalist he had a profound effect on such composers as Schulhoff, who was Dvorak's protégé, Conlon noted.

Pianist Jonathan Biss will be the soloist in the Mendelssohn work.

Concluding the series on Nov. 9 will be a chamber music concert by the Phil's instrumentalists of works by Schulhoff, Martinu, Ullmann, Klein and Mendelssohn.

Conlon was first drawn to "silenced" composers of the early 20th century by rediscovering the works of Alexander Zemlinsky, a brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, and the conductor recorded most of Zemlinsky's works in Germany. Conlon's "discovery" of other names and composers followed.

"I have been a practicing musician for 30 years, and until 10 years ago, I knew hardly anything about these composers from Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Budapest, whose works represented much of the musical ferment of their time," Conlon said.

Conlon made his New York Philharmonic debut in 1974 and has since spent most of his time in Europe, conducting leading orchestras and serving as principal conductor of the Paris National Opera for the past nine years.

The "Silenced Voices" program are part of his three-year project on "Recovering a Musical Heritage," although he fears that "I won't live long enough to integrate the major works of the 'silenced' composers into the standard concert repertoire.

"People tend to be afraid when they see the names of unfamiliar composers on a program, but I want to turn that around," he said.

Given Conlon's preoccupation with Jewish composers, he is often asked, "usually as the first question," whether he is Jewish himself.

"Actually, I am an Irish-Italian-German Catholic, but growing up in New York, I absorbed and loved everything Jewish," the conductor said.

"What the Nazis did was a crime not just against the Jews, but against every human being," he said. "We can never redress the injustice against the Jewish composers, but we can do what meant most to them, and that is to restore and play their music."

For ticket and other information on all the listed programs, call (323) 850-2000, or visit www.LAPhil.com.

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