NSO, James Conlon highlight 20th century’s missing masterpieces

NSO, James Conlon highlight 20th century’s missing masterpieces

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Conductor James Conlon. (Credit: Todd Rosenberg)
Conductor James Conlon. (Credit: Todd Rosenberg)

WASHINGTON, April 11, 2014 – Guest conductor James Conlon is leading the NSO this weekend in a marvelously rich and entertainment program highlighting the music of two important 20th century composers that still remain surprisingly unknown in this country, Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957).

The reason behind this relative neglect is twofold. First of all, the music of both composers, while clearly modern, is uniquely distinctive, with clear roots in late 19th century Romanticism while also experimenting strongly with what is loosely termed “extended tonality.” This puts both composers at odds with the orthodoxy of academic serialism that eventually held most mid-to-late 20th century composers in its death-grip.

Secondly, both composers had the misfortune of possessing a Jewish heritage. With the rapid rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s, their music as well as much of the music of Jewish composers and other composers of undesirable ethnicity was banished, banned, and at times actually destroyed, an ugly byproduct of the developing Holocaust.

Essentially written out of the Western performing arts narrative, the music of these composers, some of which had been greatly popular in its day, was pushed, at best, into the status of an obscure footnote to the history of this period, leaving classical music to be defined, or redefined, solely by the so-called Second Viennese School of composition who rejected 19th century Romanticism, and indeed much of Western musical tradition, and proposed to replace it with something entirely different.

At least one reason why classical music plummeted in popularity as the 20th century advanced was the advent and ultimate compositional dominance of these composers and their followers whose “serialism,” or music rooted in the 12-tone row, achieved the status of dogma, particularly in academia.

Oversimplified, serialism, perhaps more popularly known as “atonality,” rooted out traditional notions of key-based harmony (“tonality”), replacing longstanding Western compositional tradition with, essentially, a mathematical model focusing far more on theoretical technique than it did on creating music that pleased and attracted the concert going public.

Concertgoers, for their part, immediately and permanently identified atonal music as ugly music—which for those desiring melody and song it most certainly is—and developed the distinctly 20th century tradition of boycotting concert programs that primarily featured the music of most, though not all 20th century composers.

This phenomenon was clearly in evidence during the NSO’s Thursday evening performance. While Brahms’ popular “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” Op. 56a, was on the program to attract listeners, that didn’t seem to be quite enough to attract many of the faithful. While the audience size was respectable, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall still had a depressingly large number of empty seats in the rear orchestra section.

Alexander von Zemlinsky, circa 1900. (Via Wikipedia, public domain in U.S.)
Alexander von Zemlinsky, circa 1900. (Via Wikipedia, public domain in U.S.)

That was too bad, because James Conlon, long a champion of the 20th century’s tragically missing repertoire, brought along with him violinist Gil Shaham to perform Korngold’s once dismissed but now increasingly respected Violin Concerto, while also unveiling the first-ever U.S. performance of Zemlinsky’s majestic and substantial tone poem, “Die Seejungfrau” (“The Mermaid”) in its recently updated version.

Zemlinsky was a contemporary of Gustav Mahler and, perhaps surprisingly, the brother-in-law of his dramatic compositional opposite, Arnold Schoenberg. Strongly influenced by both Mahler and Richard Strauss, he developed his own compositional technique, however, mixing these influences with techniques from those German polar opposites, Brahms and Wagner, and adding, perhaps, a dollop of Scriabin-esque exoticism to the brew.

The result, however, is distinctly Zemlinsky and a relatively early example of his musical synthesis was “Die Seejungfrau.” Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale but devoid of the later Disney-inspired happy ending most people associate with “The Little Mermaid” today, this tone poem is a deeply serious work rooted in Zemlinsky’s chaotic personal life.

Its 1905 premiere was deemed a notable success. But likely for personal reasons, Zemlinsky withdrew the work not long after. Its three distinct manuscript movements were essentially lost in his papers, with one movement winding up in the possession of a friend while the other two—and the bulk of the composer’s papers, ended up in, of all places, Washington, D.C., where they currently reside in the Library of Congress.

The parts were put back together again in the 1980s, and the work received its “re-premiere” in Vienna in 1984, and its U.S. re-premiere in 1987 which was performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of  Christoph von Dohnányi.

Maestro Conlon is conducting the first Washington performances of this work this weekend, and it’s quite a revelation. Lush, complex, and requiring a huge orchestra, often deployed in miniature when a delicate touch is required, Zemlinsky’s tone is epic in scope, clearly ambitious and surprisingly inventive, straining at accepted traditional bounds yet striking out into new territory around the edges.

There were occasional inconsistencies in the orchestra’s execution of the work—not surprising as this is the first time they’ve seen the music as opposed, for example, to some standard warhorse like a Beethoven symphony. But on the whole, Mr. Conlon and the orchestra were able to shape a consistent, woody and brassy sound, up close and personal when necessary, but with a majestic sweep, particularly in the work’s “sea music” sections.

A special hat tip as well in this performance for the find solo work of concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and first-chair cellist David Hardy whose expressive solo moments spoke for the mermaid and her prince, respectively.

Unique to this performance was the addition of a brief “sea witch” episode that Zemlinsky cut after the work’s original premiere. Fairly recently re-discovered and added back in, this newest, closest-to-the-original version of “Seejungfrau” debuted in Dresden in 2013 and is receiving its first U.S. performance here.

The now restored material is weirdly unsettling, a brief excursion in extended tonality meant to depict the painful metamorphosis of the mermaid’s tail into a pair of human legs as a result of the sea witch’s strange magic. It’s actually quite effective and an important moment in the story as well, since the mermaid will no longer be able to return to her sea-floor home except under the direst of circumstances.

As we suspected, and as Maestro Conlon later explained in Thursday’s “afterwards” audience conversation, the conductor intentionally placed this marvelous work first on the program and not at the end where it actually belonged. His explanation tied in with our earlier observation. With the familiar Brahms at the end of the program, he assumed that the audience would likely stay after intermission. (And they did.) Should the Zemlinsky have been placed at the end, perhaps half the hall might have emptied at the break, perhaps wrongly assuming Zemlinsky was yet another Schoenberg disciple. There you go. Good call, Maestro.

Erich Korngold as a young man. (Via Wikipedia)
Erich Korngold as a young man. (Via Wikipedia)

Following the Zemlinsky was Korngold’s rather more familiar Violin Concerto in D-major, Op. 35. Both Zemlinsky and Korngold had escaped the Nazis in the 1930s, eventually settling in the U.S. While Zemlinsky faded and then passed away in 1942, Korngold proved much more successful, at least initially.

A child prodigy possessed of substantial skill, talent, and inventiveness, Korngold, too, was a key 20th century classical composer, particularly noted for his innovative operas, one of which, “Die Tote Stadt” (“The Dead City” or “The City of Death”) is performed with moderate frequency.

But when Korngold emigrated to the U.S., his classical compositions were not hugely known here—save by a couple of movie moguls who desired to add symphonic sweep and majesty to their films, particularly those of the swashbuckling variety. Hollywood tempted Korngold by offering him good money to write new, symphonic film scores for them.

While Korngold wrote a number of memorable film scores—including the music for Ronald Reagan’s greatest film effort, “Kings Row” (1942), perhaps the composer’s most memorable score is the virtually operatic music he wrote for the famous Errol Flynn version of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938).

Korngold’s film efforts ultimately proved a mixed blessing, both making and breaking Korngold’s compositional career. While he became a well-remunerated and well-liked musical figure on the Hollywood circuit, the classical music milieu quickly redefined Korngold as a “sellout,” refusing to take his movie work seriously and even denigrating his earlier, popular efforts in Europe.

Nonetheless, as John Williams readily noted in an interview with this writer a number of years ago, Korngold is regarded today as the acknowledged father of the symphonic movie score—a genre whose greatest current practitioner is none other than Williams himself.

That said, both Korngold and his elderly critic father—who himself had ended up in the U.S.—felt he should somehow restore his ties to the classical world. The result was his “Violin Concerto in D-major,” penned in the late 1930s, revised in 1945, but not performed until 1947.

Not unexpectedly, the work was pooh-poohed by the highbrow critics for its recognizably Hollywood-style approach. This was hardly surprising, as the concerto contains snippets from Korngold’s less well-known film scores. That said, this is a concerto that’s modern yet easy to listen to. Readily accessible, it’s perhaps is at its best in its deeply Romantic yet quirky slow movement.

Violinist Gil Shaham. (Credit: Christian Steiner)
Violinist Gil Shaham. (Credit: Christian Steiner)

Sunny violin soloist Gil Shaham gave the concerto a light and lively reading, although he seemed slightly troubled on occasion by something going on with his instrument Thursday evening, particularly in the opening movement.

But both Mr. Shaham and the NSO, enhanced by some unusual colors added into the percussion section by the composer, ultimately gave a fine argument in favor for getting this concerto more firmly embedded in the symphonic repertoire in this century.

The concert closed with a brisk, workmanlike interpretation of Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” a popular and easily recognizable work that some have dubbed “Variations NOT on a Theme by Haydn,” as contemporary scholarship has established, with virtual certainty, that the original theme is likely a traditional tune that pre-dated the composer.

Given Zemlinsky’s own admiration for Brahms’ formalism, the Variations seemed a good way to close out a concert programmed primarily with 20th century works that perhaps best exemplified the continuity of that tradition while still managing to move it ahead with tonal innovations.

Taken as a whole, the current NSO series offers an excellent argument for the continuing re-examination of the 20th century’s lost composers—a re-examination that may very well lead to a much-needed assessment as to what the classical 20th century was really all about.

Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)

This NSO program repeats tonight and Saturday evening, April 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. For tickets and information, visit the NSO pages via this link.

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