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The music resumes

Stewart Oksenhorn
James Conlon, shown in rehearsal at Harris Hall, conducts the Aspen Chamber Symphony this week in a concert that is part of the Aspen Music Festival mini-fest, Forbidden Music: Silenced Voices. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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In an interview two summers ago with The Aspen Times, James Conlon said he was looking forward to some semblance of freedom, downshifting into a conducting career that occupied perhaps 35 weeks instead of his customary 50. It looked like a possibility: Conlon had decided the previous year not to renew his contract with the Paris Opera, which he had directed since 1995; prior to that, in 2002, he had concluded his 13-year tenure as general music director of the city of Cologne.”I’m starved for freedom. I can’t wait,” Conlon told The Aspen Times, as he anticipated resettling in his native New York City and spending more time with his wife, the soprano Jennifer Ringo, and two daughters. Then Conlon considered his words and their meaning, reflected on his extraordinary ambitions regarding classical music. “Let’s see how long it lasts,” he added.Two years on, the question isn’t how long the downsizing will last, but when it will begin. Conlon conducted his final concert as director of the Paris Opera last month. But Conlon was announced last year as the new music director of the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, his term to begin with the 2005 season. And while the Ravinia season is largely confined to the summer months, Conlon has found another purpose expansive enough to occupy much of the rest of his time.For the last several years, Conlon has become a champion of the music that was largely lost or forgotten as a result of the Nazi regime. In all his recent guest-conducting engagements, Conlon has pressed orchestra programmers to allow him to perform the music of Viktor Ullman, Erich Korngold, Karl-Amadeus Hartmann, Erwin Schulhoff and others – composers whose music, labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis, is in danger of being lost to history.When Conlon conversed with the Aspen Music Festival about the concert he would conduct this summer, he suggested a focus on Ullman, a Polish-born Jew who composed much of his work in the Terezin concentration camp and was killed at Auschwitz. The Music Festival took Conlon’s idea, and fused it with its new program of mini-festivals. This summer’s final mini-festival, Forbidden Music: Silenced Voices, features not only the music of Ullman, but also of Frühling, Schulhoff, Korngold, Messiaen and Shostakovich, all of whom saw their music, to various degrees, suppressed by totalitarian governments.

Conlon will conduct the Aspen Chamber Symphony on Friday, Aug. 20, in a performance comprising Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major; Ullman’s Piano Concerto, with soloists Christopher Taylor; and Schubert’s “Tragic” Symphony. The concert will be followed by a question-and-answer session.Conlon began to develop an interest in this era of musical history a decade ago, through his growing adoration of Zemlinsky. While immersing himself in Zemlinsky – a Viennese-born composer whose mother was Jewish, and whose later work, in the mid-1930s, was censored by the Nazis – Conlon came across names with which he was barely familiar, but that seemed to hold hints of significance. As he explored the likes of Ullman and Schulhoff, Conlon became convinced that their music was worth resurrecting.The music, says Conlon, shatters the myth that “if you don’t know it, it’s not worth knowing.” “The reason we don’t know it is historical and political. Our ignorance of this subject is because the Nazis intended to wipe all knowledge of these artists from the face of the earth,” said Conlon, his voice and his lively green eyes equally reflecting his passion. “And they succeeded.”Conlon says there is a moral dimension to his current mission. There is a moral imperative in making certain these composers, their lives cut short by the Nazis, at least have a chance to live on in their music. “My attitude is, don’t give the Nazi regime a posthumous victory. You can’t restore their lives, but you can at least resurrect their music,” said Conlon.But morality can only pull equal weight with the music itself, according to Conlon. If the music were not able to stand on its own, outside the tragedy of its circumstances, Conlon wouldn’t be pushing this hard.

“I have become deeply convinced that there is an enormous volume of music to learn about, and from which we can learn. Everything I have come in contact with I’ve wanted to come back to again and again. That to me is the clue to a great classical composer,” said Conlon, who has conducted or will soon conduct Ullman’s opera “The Emperor of Atlantis,” composed in Terezin in 1943-44, across the United States and at Italy’s Spoleto Festival, and whose two most recent recordings are of works by Ullman and Schulhoff. “The moral aspect would not have importance today without the quality of the music. This is not tokenism. It’s not to pay homage to probably very nice men who lost their lives. That’s a separate subject. Pay the homage – but also make the music-loving world love this music.”Not only is much of the music outstanding, but it holds a historic place in the continuum of classical music, notes Conlon. These composers as a whole represent the first dramatic shift away from the centuries-old Germanic school. “There’s an enormous gaping hole in the 20th century, and what 20th century music was,” said the 54-year-old Conlon. “This music represents a great break with the Germanic tradition, one of the glories of civilization. Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Schumann – all part of that tradition which thrived and created one generation after another. “And suddenly, a political catastrophe occurs – a significant proportion of a generation, almost two generations, is forbidden, and a garden is uprooted. The victims scatter: Some are dead, some emigrate, some go underground. But the important thing is that the discussion stops. All the give-and-take that should go on does not go on. There’s no access to the music. Nobody knows about it. And there it sits, and there it sat for decades.”Conlon says the mere unearthing of such a trove of art demands that it be examined. He compares it to a lost body of visual art: “It’s as if you found a treasure chest of thousands of paintings,” he said. “Could you imagine a museum not wanting to show an exhibit of that work?”

While Conlon insists the music can stand on its own merits, the question remains: Can it stand without Conlon? Will the music captivate others without Conlon’s direct involvement? Again he says yes. “I can’t tell you how many young conductors tell me they heard these pieces and want to continue performing them,” he said. “When I make a suggestion about doing Ullman and it becomes a mini-festival, that speaks for itself.”Fortunately for the ghosts of Ullman, Schulhoff et al., they can rest easy knowing that Conlon will be fighting for their place in history for some time to come. Conlon – who has directed the Cincinnati May Festival for 25 years, who spent nine years leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic and 13 in Cologne, and whose 10 years at the Paris Opera represents the longest tenure since the 1930s – has a tendency to stick with things that capture his fancy. “I’ll probably be doing this project the rest of my life,” he said. “The project won’t be finished by the end of my life.”With such a profound dedication to this work – sometimes called “Recovering a Musical Heritage,” though Conlon doesn’t seem interested in formalizing the project with a name – it seems appropriate to refer to this as Conlon’s primary focus. Big mistake. No sooner are the words out of my mouth than Conlon sets the record straight. The lost composers of the World War II era are just a small subset of Conlon’s larger goal of reversing the downward spiral of appreciation for classical music in this country.”My larger mission in coming back to America is that, in America, we have great supply – great musicians; we have more great orchestras than any other country, great opera companies. We’re producing great musicians and great institutions. The irony is, for too many people,” he said. “All the arts institutions are struggling to keep their audiences.”How is it that this country, which is so able to produce such a high level of music, can’t make it available to young people in a way that they want to live with it and share it? That is the issue which, in my mind, overrides every other issue and is most urgent.”

This week’s lineupThe Forbidden Music: Silenced Voices theme is at the center of the chamber music concert on Saturday, Aug. 21. The program features works by Frühling, Schulhoff, Ullmann/Van Keulen and Korngold. That night, pianist Vladimir Feltsman plays a recital of works by Mozart and Shostakovich, as well as Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed in a Nazi concentration camp.The Aspen Opera Theater Center season closes with a final performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” on Saturday, Aug. 21, at the Wheeler Opera House.The 2004 summer season concludes with music director David Zinman conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Choir in Verdi’s grand, massive Requiem.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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