Conductor James Conlon’s passion for the music of Alexander Zemlinsky, Erwin Schulhoff and other composers silenced by the Nazis began late one night in the 1990s, in Cologne, Germany, where he was then music director of the city’s distinguished opera and philharmonic orchestra. Mesmerized by the music he heard on his car radio, Conlon sat listening by the side of the road until the piece was over.
“I was astounded by it. It spoke to me,” says Conlon, who learned he’d been listening to Zemlinsky’s symphonic poem “The Mermaid.” He knew the composer’s name, that he’d been part of the Viennese circle around Mahler and at one point was Schoenberg’s brother-in-law. But he didn’t know Zemlinsky’s music. He was soon recording it and discovering and performing works of other, mostly Jewish, creative European composers whose music the Nazis banned as degenerate in the 1930s and ‘40s. Much of it had been “lost in endless silence,” as Conlon once wrote.
“I realized that we had been deprived of music that should have been a real part of the repertoire. But it was suppressed, and some of the composers were killed,” says the globe-traversing American conductor, who leads the San Francisco Symphony in its first performances of the fierce scherzo from Schulhoff’s Fifth Symphony from April 24-26. The piece opens a passionate program featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Conlon is on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s music director of the Los Angeles Opera, whose lauded “Recovered Voices” project has brought forth works by Zemlinsky, Viktor Ullmann and others silenced by the Nazis (Zemlinsky fled Vienna and died in New York; Ullmann was killed at Auschwitz). The previous night, Conlon conducted the first Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of Schulhoff’s piece. It’s the roiling third movement of the Czech-Jewish composer’s final, turbulent symphony, written in 1938-39, three years before he died of tuberculosis in the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria. He never heard it performed.
The scherzo, says Conlon, who recorded the full symphony and other Schulhoff works with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, “is a practically perfect piece of music that takes an idea and, in an electrifying eight minutes, bounces off that idea with a rhythmic intensity that is breathtaking. It’s as if you stuck your finger in an electrical socket for eight minutes and left it there.”
The piece builds on the Bohemian dance rhythm called the furiant, which Dvorák, who encouraged Schulhoff’s talent at an early age, used in several symphonies and his Slavonic Dances.
A versatile jazz-loving composer and pianist who wrote in a wide range of idioms and forms – his post-World War I Dada phase included works like 1919’s breathy “Sonata Erotica” for female solo voice – Schulhoff composed his late works in a personal socialist realist style inspired by his commitment to the Marxist ideal. He visited the Soviet Union, in part to meet Shostakovich.
“He wrote what he believed in,” says Conlon, who founded the OREL Foundation to advocate for music suppressed by the Third Reich. “He had nothing to gain, and he gained nothing. He was not an opportunistic composer writing for the machine, which is what you found in the Soviet Union. He was a loner, on his own.”
For Conlon, it’s crucial that music by these once-forgotten 20th century composers not be judged by a single hearing or be given what he calls “tokenistic” performances. “They should be played side by side with works that are part of the canon of classical music – because they come out of it.”