Cold can't stop Recovered Voices

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 02/05/10More articles
The composer Franz Schreker, portrait by Danny Schwartz, used courtesy of Syracuse University.

The work and lives of such Jewish composers as the Austrians Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker and the Czechs Erwin Schulhoff and Gideon Klein were brutally interrupted by the Holocaust of World War II. But last Saturday night even bone-shattering cold of a sort we don’t see here often could not stop a capacity crowd from filling Syracuse University’s Schine Center for the free concert “Recovered Voices” for a narrated performance of theirs and others’ works by the Syracuse Symphony and the university’s Oratorio Society. This included Schulhoff’s “Symphony No. 2,” “Trio” by Gideon Klein, Zemlinsky’s “Ballet Pieces,” and Schreker’s “Schwanensang,” Opus 11 (based on Dora Lee’s poem). Additionally, the concert opened with Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish” from “Duex Melodies Hebraiques,” which he wrote in 1914, and also included post-Holocaust works, Elwood Derr’s “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” (a song accompanied by saxophone and piano, based on the youth Pavel Friedman’s poem), and Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory’s arrangement of the traditional “Ani Ma’amin/I Believe.” Schulhoff and Klein both died in Nazi concentration camps, Zemlinsky fled to the US in 1938, and the work of Schreker, who died in 1934, was mocked as “degenerate” and banned by the Nazis.

Syracuse International Film Festival provided a video accompaniment to the concert drawn from a variety of sources including footage of concentration camps, children’s response to the Holocaust in drawings, survivor interviews and SYRFILM director Owen Shapiro’s documentary film “Prisoners of Freedom,” about the refugee camp opened to European Jews fleeing the Holocaust in northern New York at Oswego. Large, specially commissioned portraits of the program’s composers by SU student Danny Schwartz graced the lobby.

Part of the Regional Holocaust and Genocide Initiative, a Chancellor’s leadership project, the multi-sponsored event here was also supported by SU alum Marilyn Ziering, philanthropist and board member of the Los Angeles Opera, and the recently formed Orel Foundation, which has also carried forward the Recovered Voices project begun several years ago by the Los Angeles Opera’s music director, James Conlon, to make works suppressed by the Nazis available to US audiences. Ziering made the initial gift for the Recovered Voices project in Los Angeles in 2006 of $3.25 million, raising another $750,000 from family and friends.

As it happened, the Orel Foundation’s director Robert Elias sat down next to me at the concert itself, turned to me and asked if I liked classical music. Elias said he had flown in from Los Angeles for this event. He found the lobby portraits striking, especially favoring the one of Schreker, whose “Schwanensang” is not, he said, performed very much because its takes a full choral group and symphony orchestra to do so.

“This music is known in Europe now,” he said. “But it’s not yet really known here. Gideon Klein’s work is known – that has entered the repertoire. But the others, not so much.”

One could hardly have a better serendipitous concert companion. In just a few moments before the convert began, he sketched a framework for the program – “these composers roughly bridge Wagner to Strauss,” he began – and said I should listen for the banjo and saxophone in the third movement of Schulhoff’s symphony, for instance.

“He was interested in Dada and other avant-garde art movements of that time,” said Elias. “So there are periods of silence in some of his works, written in the teens and early 20s. Everyone knows John Cage’s ‘4:33’ – four minutes and 33 seconds of silence – even if they know nothing else by Cage, but Schulhoff was doing that decades earlier.”

Klein was sent to the concentration camp Theresienstadt – or Terezin – near Prague in 1941. Elias explained that Terezin was a propaganda tool, a “model camp” that the Nazis showed to press and visitors from the rest of Europe and the US. As such, there were frequent concerts performed there. Klein wrote the trio for violin, viola and cello that we heard at the Syracuse concert nine days before he was shipped to Auschwitz.

Elias also furnished the origin of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” and described how Jews sometimes walked into gas chambers singing “Ani Ma’amin” in unison, stopping to recite part of the text –

I believe
With full faith
In the coming of the Messiah.
And even though
He may be delayed
I will wait for him
I believe
I will wait for him
Whenever he comes.

He shared the story of Zemlinsky, who had eventually made his way to the US, where he died of a stroke, whose music first sparked James Conlon’s interest in this body of work.

In early 2008, James Conlon was in his second year at the Los Angeles Opera when he presented the project’s first fully staged production, a double bill of Zemlinsky’s “Der Zweig/The Dwarf” and the US premier of Viktor Ullmann’s “Der Zerbrochene Krug/The Broken Jug.” At that time Conlon told press that a repertory of perhaps 50 such suppressed operas existed from which to draw, which had been resurrected in Europe since the 1970s but not yet here. Besides operatic work, Conlon has directed orchestral and chorale works of suppressed music through the Ravinia Festival near Chicago and Cincinnati’s May Festival, and in late 2007 he conducted a dance program of newly choreographed work at New York’s Juilliard School. At Los Angeles Opera, Conlon aims to produce one such opera a year, with Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten/The Stigmatized” slated for 2010.

In the 1990s the Decca record label anticipated Conlon’s work by releasing “Entartete Musik/Degenerate Music,” a series whose title references the Nazi term for Jewish art. Conlon has long maintained that such suppressed work represents neither tokenism nor novelty, but European music that is “integral” to its time – “heirs to Wagner and siblings to Strauss.” In noting that only about 2 percent of this music was actually written in the death camps, Conlon speaks of “the restoration of two generations of composers.”

The Syracuse incarnation of Recovered Voices had major support from the School of Education. As that school’s dean, Douglas Biklen, explained on Monday, “A number of us in the School of Education became aware of Nazi suppression of composers and their works by virtue of learning about James Conlon's efforts to uncover and arrange for performances of their works. One of our alums, Marilyn Ziering, made us aware of James' efforts. Several of us were fortunate to hear James Conlon lecture on the topic and to see his production of a suppressed opera. So the chance to play a part in helping to recover suppressed works seemed a logical step for us, as we have been involved in promoting Holocaust Education for several years; the latter has been made possible by grants from the Spector and Warren families in Houston Texas.”

Alan Goldberg, emeritus professor of education, elaborated, “Chancellor Cantor requested proposals for multidisciplinary projects. A colleague and I submitted one for a regional Holocaust and contemporary genocide project. I had discovered what was called the ‘Defiant Requiem’ after Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ was performed in Terezin. Some years ago there was a PBS special from Portland of this, in which the orchestra and chorus wore prisoners’ garb and there was footage of camp scenes projected and voices of survivors. As it ended the performers filed off stage until there was just a single person left on stage.”

Goldberg credits Elisa Dekaney, director of the university’s Oratorio Society, for enlisting Syracuse Symphony’s Daniel Hege early on.

“She knows Hege and took this to him,” said Goldberg. “He was interested, and two years ago we brought James Conlon to Syracuse. He spoke here and Daniel met him. She and Daniel put the program together and a colleague at school, Victoria Kohl, took on raising the funds.”

Kohl, who is an assistant dean in Education, said after the concert that a special high point for her came on Friday, when “James Conlon called from London to see how rehearsal was going.”

Goldberg said of the Recovered Voices concert here, “I loved that jazz in the Schulhoff! I’d never heard the Zemlinsky before. And I’m not exactly sure when the Klein piece was written, but imagine someone writing music like this, knowing he’s going to die, seeing people with typhus in the camp, watching children going to the gas chambers. And the music can stand on its own.”

Further Holocaust and Contemporary Genocide Project events

Goldberg said that the Holocaust and Contemporary Genocides project is “not interested” in money for single events alone.

“Those things have no stamina,” he said. “The main thing is the context of the whole project. At the end of the month, for example, we’re bringing Michael Birenbaum here to speak. He was one of the original developers of the US Holocaust Museum in Washington and also had of the Siggy Ziering Institute in Los Angeles. Marilyn Ziering’s husband Siggy, is now deceased, was also an SU alum, and a survivor. Michael will be here February 24th and 25th. On the 24th at noon he’ll speak on campus at Hillel on Walnut Park at noon about the uses – and misuses – of the Holocaust in political discourse. You know, when a member of Congress says that the health care bill is ‘just like the Nazis,’ something is really wrong. At 7:30 PM on the 24th, Michael Birenbaum will speak at the Jewish Community Center on East Genesee Street about how Hollywood has depicted the Holocaust. And at noon on the 25th, he’ll speak in Eggers Hall on campus in the Public Events Room – we’ve partnered with the Middle Eastern Studies Program on this – about Holocaust denial.”

Goldberg went on, “Were making him available to area schools and he’ll speak in some classes – in museum studies, for example, where the question is, how do you design a show around horrific events? For one thing, you show the life that went on before. What is the purpose and what are the uses of a museum? So museums can emphasize artifacts and also they have a role in teaching.”

“For me,” said Goldberg, “our need is to talk about the Holocaust and other genocides in lots of different ways – what are the roles of the law, of teachers, of newspapers? We’re preparing 20 students a year to teach the Holocaust. People need to know that totalitarian regimes always declare the arts of targeted groups are ‘degenerate.’”

Meanwhile, Conlon’s project continues, having put down new roots in Central New York. “You can do what would have meant the most to them," he has said, "which is to perform their music.”

This article appeared in short form on page 6 of the February 4, 2010 print issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

TAGS: Recovered Voices concert, Syracuse Symphony, Syracuse University, SU Oratorio, Los Angeles Opera, James Conlon, suppressed Jewish music, Holocaust & Contemporary Genocides
EDITION: The Eagle

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