James Conlon, musical director and veteran conductor of LA Opera, is well versed in the canon of 20th century classics. But in recent decades he has focused on a different kind of work: classic works that audiences have never had the chance to hear.
For nearly half of Conlon’s 50-year decorated career, his real life’s work was performing and promoting the music of composers whose lives and careers were disrupted or ended under the Nazi regime.
“The chronicle of 20th-century classics was written with great omissions,” he says. “It’s a bigger mission than any of us” to raise them. “I won’t see this completely finished in my lifetime, and so I thought it was very important to start investing in the young people, the musicians and the musicologists who will hopefully take it forward.”
When it comes to music, Conlon understands that visibility doesn’t always equal value.
“One of my biggest hurdles over the years has been struggling with a kind of intellectual laziness: ‘I’ve never heard of this person. How good could that be? he says. “It’s not the people’s fault. It’s not our fault. It is 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 forgotten 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 of 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.
With the Alameda String Quartet, Millstein has also performed across the country and launched a series of recorded performances for the Library of Congress that includes a world premiere of Zipper“Two Dances for Trudl”. Born in 1904 to a Jewish family in Vienna, Zipper later attended the Vienna Academy of Music and taught in Düsseldorf. But as he began 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 Orchestra.
In the camp, Zipper formed a secret orchestra, composing and performing music for the prisoners. After his release, Zipper traveled to Paris and 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. 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 Opera Numi’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 is important to “respectfully program” the work of these musicians without “symbolizing 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. “A lot of times you’ll see a gig and they’ll just say ‘OK, yeah, there’s only female songwriters for a gig’, but then the rest of the year it’s ‘back to business’. What does it help?”
Last week, Millstein and the Alameda String Quartet appeared at the Nevada Chamber Music Festival. For these performances, Millstein programmed the works of lesser-known composers such as Weinberg and Schulhoff alongside pieces by well-known composers such as Maurice Ravel and Antonín Dvořák. The intention, Millstein said, was to highlight shared sonic and artistic elements in disparate works, particularly how composers drew on different elements of folk music for their compositions.
“It’s not a monolithic group of people,” says Conlon. “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 initiate a process of healing while reminding audiences to never forget the atrocities responsible for the absence of these works.
Millstein, with the Alameda String Quartet, will perform Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1 on Sunday. Schulhoff is one such composer in whom Millstein developed a particular interest while browsing the databases of the OREL Foundation, a wealth of resources dedicated to rediscovering Nazi-suppressed music.
Born in Prague in 1894, Schulhoff was a precocious talent, impressing legendary Czech composer Dvořák as a child. His promising career was rocked by two world wars, the first of which left him wounded by shrapnel, nervous shock and a socialist outlook. The second cost his life. In 1942, he died of tuberculosis after being deported to a camp in Wülzburg, Germany.
Throughout his life, Schulhoff rubbed shoulders with modernists such as Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, while drawing inspiration from the art and aesthetics of Berlin’s Dada movement. He was the first to embrace jazz, and the varied influences within Quartet No. 1 testify to Schulhoff’s originality. Unusual in its structure, the striking piece begins with a fiery and very rhythmic quick with fuocoa notation inviting musicians to play “quickly, with passion”.
The performance will include arias by soprano Shana Blake Hill, tenor Scott Ramsay and baritone Roberto Gomez, with musical director and pianist Christopher Luthi, as well as a performance by the string quartet Melodia Mariposa conducted by Irina Voloshina. Alongside Schulhoff, works by Erich Korngold, Schreker, Viktor Ullmann, Kurt Weill and Von Zemlinsky will be presented. This is Numi Opera’s first public performance since it closed in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Conlon, it is imperative that the music find its rightful place: where it can be heard by the public.
“The moral reason is to right injustice,” Conlon says of his mission. “The historical reason is that it is the obligation of every historian to revisit any period of history that is not fully known. The third reason is artistic – none of this would matter if the music wasn’t good.
And just as the mission to uncover these deleted works is larger than any initiative, so 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 Wide Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $35 to $50