The conductor James Conlon is trying to undo some of the 20th century's
greatest crimes against music. This week Mr. Conlon will present three concerts
in Manhattan featuring music of Viktor Ullmann, a German-Czech composer who
died in Auschwitz in 1944. These programs are just the beginning of an
ambitious three-year project, "Recovering a Musical Heritage,"
devoted to composers murdered by the Nazis, like Erwin Schulhoff, Pavel Haas,
Gideon Klein and Hans Krasa, and to those uprooted by the war, like Bela
Bartok, Kurt Weill and Alexander Zemlinsky.
"These concerts are about the tragic effect of war on art," Mr. Conlon said recently, "and not just the Second World War but all wars."
With this grand project Mr. Conlon seeks to redress a double evil: the physical extermination of a generation of Jewish composers and a half-century of neglect of their music. When European concert life was reconstituted after the war, their personal syntheses of the styles of Mahler, Berg, Weill and Janacek were forgotten. In the late 1950's, the fragmented and depersonalized style of works like Luigi Nono's "Canto Sospeso" was deemed to be the correct musical image of the horrors of the war. But the composers whose music Mr. Conlon is championing wrote from the very eye of the storm, in some cases from within the Theresienstadt concentration camp itself, and responded to unspeakable conditions with resistance, compassion and, at times, heartbreaking humor.
A native New Yorker, Mr. Conlon, 53, has served as the principal conductor of the Paris National Opera and the grandly titled general music director of the city of Cologne, Germany. He comes to the music of Ullmann, Krasa and Haas through their mentor Zemlinsky, the composer and conductor who escaped from Prague in 1940. After Zemlinsky's death in Larchmont, N.Y., in 1941, his compositions, even the sensuous "Lyric Symphony," were nearly forgotten.
For Mr. Conlon, Zemlinsky became an emblem of the injustice of musical history. Not only was the music unplayed, but its style, best known through the movie scores of Zemlinsky's most successful student, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was dismissed by hard-core modernists as late-Romantic kitsch. Hoping to correct this judgment, Mr. Conlon has recorded most of Zemlinsky's large output.
His operas, choral and vocal works and orchestral music reveal him as a master of musical storytelling with a distinctive style located somewhere among those of Mahler, Puccini and Zemlinsky's brother-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg. Zemlinsky's music extends from the lurid decadence of operas like "A Florentine Tragedy," which Mr. Conlon will conduct at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado this summer, to the unexpected and powerful settings of black American poetry in the "Symphonic Songs" from the 1920's.
Mr. Conlon takes particular pride in presenting Zemlinsky's Sinfonietta (1934) in Carnegie Hall, where it was last conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, more than 50 years ago. Compact, exquisitely wrought, jubilant yet darkly shadowed, this short symphony seems to capture the very moment when European civilization began its slide into destruction.
That concert on Wednesday, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the pianist Andreas Haefliger, will also include Ullmann's Second Symphony and Haas's Study for Strings, the last works they composed before their deaths in Auschwitz. Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, barely completed before his death in New York in 1945, is the only familiar work in the series this week — deliberately so, according to Mr. Conlon.
"I want to demonstrate that Haas and Ullmann belong on the same program
with Bartok," Mr. Conlon said. But programming the concerto could be
another form of revisionism, for in this work Bartok discarded the percussive
dissonances of his earlier concertos and re-embraced tonality, a
"regressive" move that postwar atonalists could ascribe only to his
struggle with leukemia. Today we might call it progress.
Ullmann's music tells a harrowing emotional story. (Mr. Conlon conducts the Cologne Philharmonic in the two symphonies and other works by Ullmann on a new CD from the German label Capriccio.) Like such other assimilated German-speaking Czech Jews as Kafka and Mahler, Ullmann lived a life of multiple estrangements, cut off from Czech nationalism, German anti-Semitism and Jewish orthodoxy. Born in comfortable circumstances in 1898, he studied composition with Schoenberg in Vienna after World War I and worked as a conductor under Zemlinsky at the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague.
In the late 1920's his compositions began to receive international attention as he slowly worked toward a personal idiom that combined elements of atonality and jazz. When war broke out, Ullmann was trapped in Prague. He was sent to Theresienstadt in September 1942. The facts of his prewar biography convey a sense of an unfocused and restless talent. But within the camp the disparate strands of his life came together.
Inspired by Goethe's maxim "Live within the moment, live in eternity," Ullmann composed as never before and chronicled the musical activities of the camp as a critic. His review of Haas's Study for Strings, given its premiere in the camp under the direction of Karel Ancerl, shows Ullmann's sly way of suggesting how camp conditions undercut any sense of normal music making. He called the premiere "beautiful and inspiring," then noted, "the accomplishment of the orchestra — except for the lack of double basses — was satisfactory throughout."
In the face of daily indignities, malnutrition and disease, normal musical activity became a necessity. "By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon," Ullmann wrote. "Our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live."
Theresienstadt was a site of musical resistance and musical exploitation, where terms like art and horror, victims and heroes lost their accustomed meanings. Concerts, organized under the odd rubric "leisure-time activity," presented old and new music, chamber music, cabaret and even opera: most notably, Krasa's children's opera, "Brundibar." But performers never knew their audience, because thousands were constantly being brought into the camp and then shipped out to their deaths.
The Nazis cynically promoted the artistic impulses in the camp to deceive the International Red Cross. They commanded performances for an inspection team and showed a film, "The Führer Gives the Jews a Town," which portrayed the camp as a "model ghetto" and also preserved a record of a performance of "Brundibar" for posterity. Once the inspectors left, most of the inmates were sent to their deaths.
Ullmann's greatest work, the opera "Der Kaiser von Atlantis," which Mr. Conlon conducts tonight at the Central Synagogue with forces from the Juilliard School, was never performed in Theresienstadt, yet it seems tragically site-specific. The opera begins with the jarring, disembodied voice of the Loudspeaker, an emblem of the mechanized repression of the camp. The libretto, by Peter Kien, tells of the Emperor Overall, who declares war on the entire planet. The figure of Death is so outraged by the Emperor's usurpation of his prerogative that he goes on strike. The war proceeds, and people suffer without end, unable to die.
Then, miraculously, the Emperor comes to understand his crimes. To allow Death to save millions from the agony of life-without-death, he offers himself as Death's first victim.
Mr. Conlon says he sees the opera as at once a political satire and a parable of hope "when there is no longer any reason to hope." The Emperor, living in total isolation, represents Hitler; his ally, the Drummer, who sings a menacing minor-key version of "Deutschland Über Alles," is Eva Braun. The plaintively romantic Harlequin and a pair of Romeo and Juliet-style lovers represent the lost world of normal human emotion.
The Emperor's change of heart is, for Mr. Conlon, a wish fulfillment not too far removed from events today. The wistful cabaret-style music here becomes heavier yet more radiant. The Emperor's closing aria echoes Brahms and Mahler. The lovers, Harlequin and even the Drummer and the Loudspeaker, welcome death with a sublime setting of Luther's chorale melody "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," to the words "Thou shalt not use the name of Death in vain, now and forever."
A chamber concert at St. Bartholomew's Church tomorrow, with the Hawthorne String Quartet, the soprano Amy Burton and the mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, will show other aspects of Ullmann's style and artistic milieu. Zemlinsky's lyrical example appears with "Maiblumen Blühten Überall" ("Mayflowers Bloom Everywhere"), an uncompleted setting of poetry by Richard Dehmel, planned as a companion to Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht" ("Transfigured Night"), also based on Dehmel. A remnant from a lost world, it prefigured other fragments and reconstructions of projects either abandoned or interrupted.
Two works by Krasa will show how Middle European composers could also be inspired by the Parisian sophistication of the composers' group Les Six and from points even farther west. Krasa's Passacaglia and Fugue for string trio, written in Theresienstadt in 1943, seems to recall a melody from Walt Disney's "Snow White."
Ullmann will be represented by a song cycle from 1937, to poems inspired by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. In the early 1930's, Ullmann temporarily abandoned music to study Steiner's humanist philosophy "anthroposophy." The concert concludes with Ullmann's Third String Quartet, his only remaining contribution to the genre. Combining tonal and 12-tone ideas in a one-movement form that echoes Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony, Ullmann's quartet has a poignant eloquence remote from Schoenbergian frenzy. It seems to open the door toward music of simple and humane expression, a door that would be slammed shut for 50 years.
AND FROM THE ARCHIVES
February 13, 1998, Friday
Most of these composers, including Ullmann and Haas, were interned at Theresienstadt, a ''model'' camp near Prague to which many composers, writers, artists and performers were sent. The Nazis used the camp for publicity purposes, inviting the Red Cross and other international agencies to document its cultural life and comparatively decent conditions. Actually, Theresienstadt was a stopping point on the way to Treblinka and Auschwitz. Of the 141,000 people imprisoned there, only 23,000 survived. Ullmann and Haas died at Auschwitz within days of each other in 1944.
The program on Wednesday was presented by an organization called Elysium -- Between Two Continents, based in both Germany and the United States; it presents concerts, theater works, operas and exhibitions. This installment was essentially a lieder recital, with Roxane LaCombe, soprano, and Daniel Smith, bass-baritone, as the soloists, and John W. Simmons accompanying them at the piano. There was also a melodrama, Ullmann's ''Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christophe Rilke,'' narrated by Gregorij H. von Leitis.
The most immediately striking aspect of the program was the stylistic gulf that separated Ullmann, whose music has a dour edge, and Haas, who resisted his circumstances by writing in a notably more cheerful language.
Ullmann's works have an Expressionist intensity and angularity, but there is flexibility in them as well. The ''Liebeslieder'' (Op. 18), with their direct, arching melodies floating over densely chromatic accompaniments, stand in contrast to both the hymnlike melodies of the ''Geistliche Lieder'' (Op. 20), the colorfully inflected miniatures that make up ''Der Mensch und seine Tag'' (Op. 47) and a set of three sweetly melodic settings of poetry by Holderlin.
Death's aria, from ''The Emperor of Atlantis,'' has a sardonic edge, and in ''Christoph Rilke,'' a setting of Rainer Maria Rilke's version of a medieval chivalric epic, Ullmann's piano writing is picturesque and overtly dramatic. Apart from the opera excerpt, in which Death beckons with an offer of peace, only the ''Chinesische Lieder,'' composed in 1943, offer stark images of war and its consequences.
It may be too much to say that Haas averted his eyes: his response was a more subtle defiance. Two cycles were included here: his six settings of Moravian folk songs and his final work, ''Four Songs From Chinese Poetry.'' The folk songs are as advertised, bright and innocently melodic, with illustrative accompaniments. The Chinese songs have bright surfaces, too, yet within them one hears adventurous touches (the swirling piano figure in ''I Heard the Cry of the Wild Geese,'' and the bluesy accompaniment to ''In the Bamboo Grove'') as well as sadness and, in the closing ''Sleepless Night,'' sheer anger.
Mr. Smith's accounts of Haas's Chinese songs and the excerpt from Ullmann's ''Atlantis'' were the emotional high points of the evening, but Ms. LaCombe, Mr. Simmons and Mr. von Leitis all gave solid, affecting performances and were effective advocates for this music.
Published: 02 - 13 - 1998, Late Edition - Final, Section E, Column 3, Page 4