It may be odd to put it this way, but James Conlon is on a crusade. During the past decade, the 54-year-old conductor, a native of Queens, N.Y., has proved to be a vigorous advocate of music suppressed by the Nazis. And this season, Conlon has made these scores a top priority, including them in virtually every program he’s leading as a guest conductor with major American orchestras.
The Nazis were broad in their prohibitions, and sometimes it can seem easier to list the composers they didn’t object to rather than note those singled out for repression and, often, destruction. Not all the damned were Jewish, of course. The Nazis typically treated their political or aesthetic enemies as harshly as those who offended their racial sensibilities. Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek were unimpeachably “Aryan,” yet their progressive music was widely castigated and deemed unfit for performance. Both fled to America.
Still, Jews bore the brunt of the Nazis’ cultural attacks. The list of banned Jewish composers included the already dead — Mendelssohn, Mahler, Offenbach — and those whom the Nazis themselves killed, such as Viktor Ullmann, Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Krása, Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein and others. Some, like Franz Schreker, were harassed into an early grave. Others — Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill and Erich Wolfgang Korngold — were forced into exile, where their once glowing reputations dimmed. Already this season, Conlon has performed Ullmann’s Second Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And he will lead the Cleveland Orchestra in Alexander Zemlinsky’s “The Mermaid” on November 11, 12 and 13.
The conductor, who is not Jewish, came to champion this music in a roundabout way, and not for overtly political — or politically correct — reasons.
“The genesis took place naturally,” he said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “It started out with my falling in love with Zemlinsky’s music over the last decade. And in the process, I began to discover the music of people associated with him. I was fascinated that he had so much influence.”
Little known outside esoteric music circles even today, Zemlinsky was a central figure in fin de siècle Vienna. A composer with a gift for lush orchestration, he was drawn to setting material with dark subtexts, much of it suggested by fairy tales. He was also a notable teacher, with composers as varied as Schreker, Korngold and Ullmann learning from him. Though Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, his unstinting praise for the composer had nothing to do with their status as in-laws. Zemlinsky died in Larchmont, N.Y., in 1942, driven from Europe for being partly Jewish, his music already pretty much forgotten.
Conlon was serving as general music director of Cologne, Germany — chief conductor at the city’s opera house and concert hall — when his eureka moment occurred, and programming Zemlinsky’s scores there seemed natural enough. Soon, an important series of recordings (released on EMI and partly funded by Ford Motor Co.) would make the names Zemlinsky and Conlon virtually synonymous.
What began as a vague enthusiasm centered on one composer has evolved into nothing less than a reevaluation of 20th-century music for Conlon. “There’s no question that some of the pieces of Zemlinsky, Schulhoff, Ullmann are great music,” he said.
Yet a sense that history — even musical history — is written by the victors seems to haunt the conductor. “The operating assumption that most people in the classical music world have is that if they don’t know something, it’s not worth knowing,” he said. “But that’s baloney.”
The absence of these composers from the repertory, he insists, reflects not their lack of merit, but rather the relative success of the Nazis’ campaign to erase their work. “We talk about the 20th century,” said Conlon, “and we talk about Stravinsky, Bartók and Schoenberg because they’re important. But we also talk about them because we know about them.”
So Conlon, defining this music broadly, wants to make known what was previously suppressed. “We’re really talking about two generations,” he said. “Zemlinsky and Schreker on the one hand, and people like Klein on the other. We’re talking about a whole piece of music history, several decades that have fallen from our view.”
December 9-11 he will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony in excerpts from Korngold’s ballet “The Snowman,” written when the composer, a legendary prodigy, was 11. And in Miami at the end of the month, he presents Ullmann’s opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” — written while the composer was imprisoned in Theresienstadt. The opera — which requires only 21 instrumentalists and seven singers — has become a signature work for Conlon, who first performed it, semi-staged at Cincinnati’s Isaac M. Wise (Plum Street) Temple, in 2001. He reprised it at New York’s Central Synagogue last year, gave five performances of it at the Spoleto Festival in Italy and most recently conducted it at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Conlon remains in Miami through the New Year to direct Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony in a program devoted entirely to music connected to the Holocaust. A highlight will be Ullmann’s Piano Concerto, with the conductor’s old friend Garrick Ohlsson as soloist.
Conlon acknowledges that a “moral attitude” plays a part in his advocacy, but the passion driving this musician is primarily aesthetic. “Classical music is by definition music we go back to,” Conlon said, “and this is music that must be returned to, and music we will want to return to.”