A galvanized generation is recovering music from composers suppressed by the Nazis
James Conlon, the veteran L.A. Opera music director and conductor, is well versed in the canon of 20th century classics. But over the last several decades, he has been focused on another kind of oeuvre: classical works the public has never had the chance to hear.
For nearly half of Conlon’s decorated 50-year career, his true life’s work has been to perform and promote the music of composers whose lives and careers were disrupted or ended during the Nazi regime.
“The chronicle of 20th century classics has been written with great omissions,” he says. “It’s a mission larger than any of us” to elevate them. “I will not see this fully completed in my lifetime, and so I thought it was very important to start investing in younger people, musicians and musicologists who hopefully will bring it forward.”
When it comes to music, Conlon understands that visibility does not always connote value.
“One of my biggest obstacles over the years has been working against a sort of an intellectual laziness: ‘I never heard of this person. How good could it be?’” he says. “That’s not the people’s fault. That’s not our fault. That’s the fault of the Nazi regime. It’s a cultural war crime. It’s a tragedy.”
Conlon’s passion for recovering the works and stories of overlooked composers has galvanized a new generation of musicians and composers. Among them is Adam Millstein, a violinist who first met Conlon while performing at the Thomas Mann House as a graduate student in the Colburn School. As part of this initiative, Millstein has programmed a series of performances featuring the music of Erwin Schulhoff, Franz Schreker, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Mieczysław Weinberg, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Herbert Zipper.
Along with the Alameda String Quartet, Millstein has also performed across the country and debuted a series of recorded performances for the Library of Congress that includes a world premiere performance of Zipper’s “Two Dances for Trudl.” Born in 1904 to a Jewish family in Vienna, Zipper later attended the Vienna Music Academy and taught in Düsseldorf. But just as he was beginning his career in music, the Nazis annexed Austria. Zipper was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, where he met other interned musicians, including members of the Munich Philharmonic.
Within the camp, Zipper formed a secret orchestra, composing and performing music for prisoners. After his release, Zipper traveled to Paris and to the Philippines, where he became director of the Manila Symphony Orchestra and was later imprisoned again, this time by invading Japanese forces.
“Two Dances for Trudl” was composed by Zipper for his wife, Trudl Dubsky, a Viennese ballerina who had also fled Europe. Both Zipper’s music and choreography have never been heard or seen by modern audiences until now.
On Sunday, Millstein and the Alameda String Quartet will perform in Numi Opera’s “Journey Out of Darkness,” a recital featuring works by composers such as Zipper who were suppressed by fascist regimes in the 20th century. For Millstein, it’s important to “respectfully program” the work of these musicians without “tokenizing or re-ghettoizing,” as he describes it.
“I think a lot of the dialogue with these composers can be appropriately applied to other underrepresented composers,” he says. “Oftentimes, you’ll see a concert and they’re just like, ‘OK, yes, it’s only female composers for one concert,’ but then the rest of the year, it’s ‘back to business.’ What purpose does that serve?”
Last week, Millstein and the Alameda String Quartet appeared at the Nevada Chamber Music Festival. For these performances, Millstein programmed the works of more unheralded composers such as Weinberg and Schulhoff alongside pieces by well-known composers including Maurice Ravel and Antonín Dvořák. The intention, Millstein said, was to highlight shared sonic and artistic elements in disparate works, particularly the way composers have sourced different elements of folk music for their compositions.
“It’s not a monolithic group of people,” Conlon says. “Every story is different. They are together after death, so to speak, because of things beyond their control.”
Numi Opera was founded in 2019 by director Gail Gordon, with a mission that echoes that of the Recovered Voices project. Through their work, Gordon hopes to begin a healing process while reminding the public to never forget the atrocities responsible for these works’ absence.
Millstein, along with the Alameda String Quartet, will perform Quartet No. 1 by Schulhoff on Sunday. Schulhoff is one such composer whom Millstein developed a particular interest in while scouring the OREL Foundation databases, a trove of resources dedicated to rediscovering music suppressed by the Nazis.
Born in Prague in 1894, Schulhoff was an early talent, impressing the legendary Czech composer Dvořák as a child. His promising career was rattled by two world wars, the first of which left him with a shrapnel wound, nervous shock and a socialist outlook. The second claimed his life. In 1942, he died of tuberculosis after being deported to a camp in Wülzburg, Germany.
In his life, Schulhoff mingled with modernists such as Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, while finding inspiration in the art and aesthetics of the Berlin Dada movement. He was early to embrace jazz, and the varied influences within Quartet No. 1 showcase Schulhoff’s originality. Unusual in its structure, the striking piece begins with a fiery and highly rhythmic presto con fuoco, a notation directing the musicians to play “fast, with passion.”
The performance will feature arias performed by soprano Shana Blake Hill, tenor Scott Ramsay and baritone Roberto Gomez, with music director and pianist Christopher Luthi, as well as a performance by string quartet Melodia Mariposa led by Irina Voloshina. Alongside Schulhoff, works by Erich Korngold, Schreker, Viktor Ullmann, Kurt Weill and Von Zemlinsky will be presented. It marks Numi Opera’s first public performance since it shuttered in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Conlon, it’s imperative that the music be restored to its proper place: where it can be heard by the public.
“The moral reason is to undo injustice,” Conlon says of his mission. “The historical reason is that it’s the obligation of any historian to revisit whatever period of history isn’t fully known. The third reason is artistic — none of this would be important if the music wasn’t good.”
And just as the mission to uncover these suppressed works is larger than any one initiative, so too are the implications. “Today more than ever, we see authoritarian governments thriving, suppressing and attacking,” Conlon adds. “These composers are prime examples of the cultural cost [when these governments thrive].”
‘Journey Out of Darkness’
Where: The Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $35 to $50
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