Saturday, June 21, 2008

Potemkin Village Threnody

From the archives, 2004:

Tearing Down Walls: James Conlon Champions Music Silenced By The Nazis

by Mark Satola

VIKTOR ULLMANN's final musical testament was a piano sonata that was much more than a piano sonata. Incarcerated in the Nazi “show city” of Theresienstadt (Terezin) along with nearly 60,000 other Jews, many of whom were artists, composers and performers, Ullmann was a leading participant in the cultural life that spontaneously appeared within the confines of the walled city, first in secret, then later with full approval of the Nazis, who found that the vision of so many Jews happily making music provided a perfect PR cover for their Final Solution.

Shortly before his deportation to Auschwitz, Ullmann (1898-1944) composed his seventh piano sonata, leaving behind a manuscript nearly indecipherable from many revisions, but also, tantalizingly, replete with cues for instrumentation -- incontrovertible proof that the sonata (which is entirely performable as a keyboard work) is really a sketch for a symphony.

Thanks to the labors of German musicologist Bernhard Wulff, that symphony has been brought to life as Ullmann's Symphony No. 2 in D Major (Wulff performed the same feat for Ullmann's similarly cued fifth piano sonata, presenting it as the Symphony No. 1, “On My Youth”), and is the centerpiece of concerts being given by the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend under the baton of guest conductor James Conlon, who has been a tireless champion of music by composers who had been silenced by the Third Reich.

“There's a saying in Germany, that these composers were murdered twice,” Conlon says, “once in reality, and a second time in postwar Europe's musical world.”

Indeed, the decades following World War II were dominated by composers who followed the musical ethos of Anton von Webern, the disciple of Schoenberg who essentialized to aphoristic miniature the serial methodology of his mentor. Composers such as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Krenek and Franz Schreker, with their commitment to tonality, were ignored or forgotten; while such composers as Ullmann, Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff perished while prisoners of the Nazi regime.

Conlon, who has spent the last 20 years in Europe, piloting such institutions as the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Cologne Philharmonic and the Paris Opera, has been at the forefront of the 30-year drive to return these composers to the concert halls.

“My interest was an outgrowth of my years in Germany,” he says. “I developed an interest which became a passion for the music of Zemlinsky about a decade ago, and made a recording or two of his music.”

Zemlinsky was one of the composers whose music was forbidden -- entartete Musik -- by Joseph Goebbels, who oversaw cultural matters in the Third Reich. Grounds for such proscription in the 1930s included “decadence” (read: modernistic tendencies) and a Jewish background. “A lot of the music contains a world of feelings about the time -- what the Germans call the Zeitgeist -- which can only be appreciated by hearing the music itself,” Conlon says.

“I think 2004 is the year to try to get as many American orchestras to get at least one piece [by “entartete” composers] on their programs,” he notes. “I have a sense of mission about this.”

Conlon's American mission will be facilitated by his return to the United States. He'll continue his 25-year relationship with the Cincinnati May Festival, and in 2005 takes over the directorship of the Ravinia Festival, but beyond that, his plans are refreshingly open.

“For me the exciting part is that it's the first time in 20 years that I'll be free to do what I want,” he says. “I'll be able to pick and choose.”

He returns to a culture that is markedly different from the one prevalent in Europe. “Classical music has a different function in our civilization,” he says. “It makes actual demands on the listener, to think more, feel more. It's a very important difference that needs to be fostered in our culture.

“It's all fine to be fast and new,” he continues, “but classical music brings out another part of our souls, our brains, that is not addressed by the speed of television and the Internet. Our culture needs profundity, modes of thought brought out by classical music. It's necessary for civilization.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 21, 2004

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