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Jewish Journal

Maestro’s mission is to restore banned composers’ music

by Naomi Pfefferman

December 7, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Conductor James Conlon. Photo by Mark Lyons

Conductor James Conlon. Photo by Mark Lyons

After conducting a performance in Germany of the Cologne Opera in 1993, James Conlon turned on his car radio and was riveted by a symphonic poem awash in wave-like melodies. He was so mesmerized that he sat in his car with the motor running, long after he arrived home, to hear the announcer reveal the name of the lush work and its composer.

He learned that the piece was "Die Seejungfrau" ("The Mermaid"), and that the Austrian-Jewish composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky, had been a major figure in pre-World War II Europe. But then the Nazis banned his music, and Zemlinsky was forced to flee to the United States, where he fell into obscurity, suffered a series of strokes and ceased composing.

The story proved ear-opening for Conlon, the new music director of Los Angeles Opera. "I became passionate about this subject [of composers persecuted by Hitler]," he says in an interview in his second-floor office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "In the course of learning and studying about Zemlinsky, I became familiar with other names ... and realized that there is a whole era of music about which we know very little."

Conlon became a maestro with a mission: to help revive the music of composers banned (and often murdered) by the Nazis.

His crusade will continue with a new production of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht opera, "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," Feb. 10-March 4 for the Los Angeles Opera. Also in March, Conlon will unveil a new L.A. Opera project, "Recovered Voices," with two concerts of music by Zemlinsky and other banned composers.

One of them, Erwin Schulhoff, died of tuberculosis in the Wulzburg concentration camp, and Viktor Ullman wrote his last, defiant opera in Theriesienstadt -- the "model" camp the Nazis created to deceive the International Red Cross -- before being sent off to be gassed.

Weill was luckier, escaping Berlin by car just after the Nazis assumed power in 1933. The musician topped Hitler's musical hit list because he was a popular Jewish composer and because his operas incorporated agitprop with the "entartete [degenerate] Musik" of jazz.

Nazi thugs disturbed performances of his "The Threepenny Opera," also with text by dramatist Brecht. In 1930, Brown Shirts staged a riot during the premiere of "Mahagonny," causing fistfights in the aisles that spread to the stage.

"Mahagonny" is sardonic opera, a parable of Weimar Germany on the brink of Nazi rule. It follows three fugitives who establish a town where everything is legal, so long as it can be paid for. This morally bankrupt city soon attracts a community of lowlifes, criminals, prostitutes and the occasional hapless proletarian.

Weill's jazz-meets-neoclassical score punctuates scenes in which residents revel in an orgy; a glutton stuffs himself, then drops dead from a heart attack, and a lumberjack is executed for the town's only crime -- running out of cash.

Although "Threepenny" (and Weill) eventually became hits on Broadway, "Mahagonny" didn't fare so well. This "towering masterpiece hasn't entered the standard repertoire," the Dallas Morning News noted in 2000 in a discussion at the time of Weill's centenary celebration.

Conlon hopes to increase the profile of this social and political satire, which he believes resonates today.

"We see humanity in all its foibles," he said of the opera which will be performed in an English translation of the German. "We see the rise and fall of a civilization in this tiny microcosm of a small town."

At press time, Conlon had agreed to set his "Mahagonny" in another Sin City -- Las Vegas -- during a period that spans the entire 20th century. With opera officials, he cast Audra McDonald as Jenny, the prostitute; Patti LuPone as Mrs. Begbick, the madam; and hired as director John Doyle, winner of the 2006 Tony Award for his revival of the musical, "Sweeney Todd." Conlon sees "Mahagonny" as a cross between opera and musical theater.

"In that cabaret style, there lies its genius," he says.

Although "Recovered Voices" is part of a musical trend -- a cause taken up by institutions such as the Jewish Museum of Vienna -- Conlon is perhaps the most prominent artist to champion the repertoire.

"He is giving it a great profile," says Bret Werb, a musicologist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

"Among the American conductors, he is really doing things," says E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of banned composer Arnold Schoenberg. "He really wants to devote a big part of his time here in Los Angeles to this music."

Conlon -- named a top U.S. conductor by Opera News -- says his motivations are multifold.

"The moral imperative is very simple," he begins. "You cannot undo the injustice of these ruined lives, but you can undo the one thing that would have meant more to them than anything else, which is to play their music."

His project isn't meant to be just a memorial, however. "This music has to be of artistic importance, so I'm not remembering every person who ever put a pen to paper," he says.

"Next there is the historical perspective. Because of the Nazi suppression, people fell off the map.... So we have written out history and made analyses of history from a musicological standpoint which is incomplete."

So why was this music ultimately forgotten?

"After the war, you had a population that had been thinned out of its greatest talent," Conlon says. "You do not have persons who have direct contact with that music or those composers, and you do not have people who had any particular sympathy for many of these victims.

"Arnold Schoenberg was one of the greatest geniuses who was lucky enough to have survived and come to America, where he had a forum for his ideas," Conlon continues. Schoenberg's atonal serial music took the classical world by storm.

"Composers whose music did not completely fall into that category got lost," he said. "Then, with electronic music in the picture, there was no interest in those composers who had gotten lost in the shuffle in the 1920s, '30s and '40s."The conductor has tried to right this musical wrong by recording nine CDs of Zemlinsky's late romantic-style music, among other projects.

He traces these endeavors to the influence of his parents, Catholic trade unionists who were both devout and politically radical. In their Queens, N.Y., home, they emphasized that "[if] you can undo an injustice, you must," the 56-year-old conductor says. They also supported Conlon's childhood love for music; after he saw his first opera at 11, he began playing the piano and took up the violin a year later.

Conlon went on to study at the prestigious Juilliard School, to conduct the New York Philharmonic at age 24 and to spend two decades in Europe, leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic in The Netherlands, serving as music director of the city of Cologne and as principal conductor of the Paris Opera. In 2004, he and his wife, Jennifer, decided to return to the United States, in part, so their two daughters could receive an American education.

Not long after, the call came from Placido Domingo at the Los Angeles Opera: The company's first music director, Kent Nagano, was leaving for the Munich Opera and would Conlon like to succeed him in July 2006?

"I was looking to reduce my workload, but his enthusiasm was so infectious, it was hard to resist," the conductor told the Los Angeles Daily News. "We talked about what my dreams and goals were, and he said yes to everything, [so] well, then, there was nothing to say no to." Conlon vowed to program core repertory alongside the "entartete Musik."

By the time he made his debut with Verdi's "La Traviata" in September, he was already planning performances of "Mahagonny" and other lost works. His March concerts will include a baritone aria from Ullman's "The Emperor of Atlantis," a parody of the Fuhrer, in which the titular leader is so bloodthirsty that he offends Death.

In 1943, Ullman scribbled the score on any paper he could find in Theresienstadt, including lists of prisoners to be transported to Auschwitz. When SS officials saw rehearsals of his insouciant opera, the 46-year-old himself was placed on those lists and shipped off to die with his cast and his librettist, Peter Kien. Yet his "Atlantis" manuscript survived; it was smuggled out of Theriesienstadt and resurfaced in London decades later.

During the March concerts, Conlon will also conduct excerpts from Schulhoff's "Flames," a Don Juan tale; and Zemlinsky's short opera, "A Florentine Tragedy," which spotlights a love triangle, adultery and murder.

Poignantly, the "Restored Voices" concerts are scheduled for March 7 and March 10 -- during the same period that L.A. Opera will perform Wagner's "Tannhäuser" (Feb. 24-March 18).

"I know Wagner was an anti-Semite," the conductor says. "But he was a great genius and wrote great music. As an artist and as someone who was a student and a lover of art, my first obligation is to reveal great art. I want to see Alexander Zemlinsky right next to Wagner. I want to see them both in the same season."

For information about the Los Angeles Opera performances, call (213) 972-8001 or visit www.losangelesopera.com. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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