Friday, June 09, 2006

American Conductor James Conlon Experiments With Bringing European-Based Thematic Classical Music Programming to American Orchestras

""The state of exile is the state in which the artist is most open to inspiration of all kinds," conductor James Conlon told a sparse but rapt Davies Symphony Hall audience Wednesday night.

Conlon was referring to writers like Dante and Oscar Wilde and composers like Liszt and Alexander Zemlinsky, who form the core of the three-week festival he is about to embark on with the San Francisco Symphony. But he could just as easily have been talking about himself.

For the past few decades, Conlon has been the classical music world's most noted American abroad. He's held musical posts in Rotterdam, Cologne and most recently Paris, where he spent nine acclaimed years as principal conductor of the Paris Opera; his main foothold in his homeland has been the Cincinnati May Festival, a choral festival he's led since 1979.

But now, at 56, Conlon is coming home. He's taken over the helm of the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony, and in the fall he'll succeed Kent Nagano as music director of the Los Angeles Opera....

And he's returned with a mission. For the next few years, Conlon has devoted himself to championing the music of the composers banned, exiled or murdered by the Nazi regime.

"There are two reasons for doing this," he said in a recent interview, "an artistic one and a moral one.

"The moral one is very easy: If you can undo an injustice you should. You cannot give these composers back their lives, and you cannot undo history. The only thing you can do is play their music.

"Still, the fact is that none of that would be justified if the music weren't good. This is not meant to be simply a remembrance, which would be justified in another context."

The Symphony's summer festival, which runs through June 23, is in part an outgrowth of that enthusiasm -- or at least, it stems from Conlon's passion for the music of Zemlinsky, which in turn led him to the other composers whose fate was affected by the Third Reich.

This weekend's opening program is devoted to music inspired by Wilde, with Zemlinsky's one-act opera "A Florentine Tragedy" as the centerpiece. Also on the program is music from other German operas based on Wilde, including Zemlinsky's "Der Zwerg" ("The Dwarf"), Franz Schreker's "The Birthday of the Infanta" and of course Richard Strauss' "Salome."

"My original plan was to do the three great operas based on Wilde, but that turned out to be too ambitious," he said. "But this gets at the essence of the idea, which was to do something that shows the chemistry between literature and classical music."

The rest of the festival, titled "Romantic Visions: From Paradise to the Abyss," traces a characteristically sophisticated web of connections between the two fields. The Verdi "Requiem," scheduled for six performances, was written to honor the memory of the great Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni, while the two pieces on the festival's concluding program -- Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" and Liszt's "Dante Symphony" -- are based on "The Divine Comedy."

There are other connections as well, which Conlon explicates with unveiled brio. They include the eschatological contrasts implied by the festival's title, which resonate through Dante and Verdi's thunderous dramatic oratory. The city of Florence also makes repeated appearances.

Wednesday's opening symposium, which combined musical performance with a conversation between Conlon and program annotator James M. Keller, drew those connections even further. Eschatology made its mark in a little-known cantata by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, a contemporary of Bach; Wilde resurfaced in two settings by the American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes.

All of this is material for Conlon's restlessly curious mind....

But it was during his European decades that Conlon acquired the reputation as a conductor of far-reaching versatility and insight. And his advocacy for Zemlinsky, a passion that has produced a wealth of recordings and countless performances, has shaped his artistic interest in unpredictable ways....

"If someone had found a collection of 3,000 great unknown paintings -- Renaissance paintings, let's say, or Impressionist paintings -- I can't imagine there wouldn't be a museum that would create a space for them to be seen. But that's what hasn't happened here."

Conlon plans to carry his crusade forward in his new positions and his busy guest-conducting schedule. But for observers who are still wondering when, or whether, Conlon will finally be named music director of an American orchestra" ...

Joshua Kosman "A Maestro with a passion for 20th century rarities" San Francisco Chronicle June 9, 2006

Kathe Kollwitz, The Farwell, Bronze. 1940

Photo credit: (c) National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. With thanks.


Käthe Kollwitz
German, 1867-1945
"A lifelong commitment to championing the rights of underprivileged people and an extraordinary ability to express human suffering in artistic terms characterize the work of Käthe Kollwitz. As part of a politically progressive, middle-class family in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), Käthe Schmidt was encouraged to develop her skills in painting and drawing. By age 14 she was taking private classes with local artists, since the Königsberg Academy barred female pupils. She later studied in Munich and Berlin.

In 1891 Schmidt married the physician Karl Kollwitz and later had two sons. The family settled in a working-class neighborhood of Berlin, where her models and her husband's patients were the urban poor. Intrigued by both the narrative potential and the democratic qualities of the graphic arts, which could be produced in inexpensive editions, Kollwitz decided to become a printmaker.

For the next 50 years she produced dramatic, emotion-filled etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs-generally in black and white but sometimes including touches of color. Although Kollwitz's wrenching subjects and virtuoso technique soon made her work popular throughout Germany and the Western world, they also generated controversy. In 1897, for example, Kaiser Wilhelm prevented Kollwitz from receiving a gold medal at the Berlin Salon because of the "subversive" nature of her subject matter. Kollwitz also encountered difficulties during the Nazi era. In 1933 she was forced to resign her position as the first female professor appointed to the Prussian Academy (in 1919); soon thereafter she was forbidden to exhibit her art.

During her final years Kollwitz produced bronze and stone sculpture, embodying the same types of subjects and aesthetic values as her work in two dimensions. Much of her art was destroyed in a Berlin air raid in 1943; later that year, Kollwitz was evacuated to Dresden, where she died at 78."



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