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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."

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