Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

James Conlon Interview

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - June 2, 2006, under headline,"Conductor trying to preserve musical legacy"

Classical music might be very different today, had World War II never happened. That's a contention made by maestro James Conlon, the thoughtful conductor heading up the San Francisco Symphony's 2006 June Festival, beginning Wednesday and continuing until June 25 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

According to Conlon, "Those who performed, wrote or taught classical music after 1945 did so with enormous omissions. The Third Reich had, with its racist ideology and the systematic suppression of Jewish musicians, artists and writers, silenced two generations of composers and, with them, an entire musical landscape."

During a fascinating telephone interview last week, Conlon elaborated on just how different this "musical landscape" might have been if the late-Romantic period music of Alexander von Zemlinsky, Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Karl-Amadeus Hartmann, Franz Schreker, Erwin Schulhoff and colleagues had been allowed to naturally cross-fertilize with the more austere, acerbic modernists like Stravinsky, Varese, Stockhausen, Boulez and the like.

Since the circumstances of the war aborted this natural selection and evolution, so to speak, music history was thereby unnaturally altered.

"I believe," he said, "that this entire 'lost generation' embodies a spirit that needs to be heard." By reviving this music, Conlon is trying to correct the unfortunate void.

"I intend, in coming years," he wrote in a 2003 essay, "Recovering a Musical Heritage: The Music Suppressed by the Third Reich," "to perform this music regularly, with the hope that it will find its place in the standard repertoire."

He is convinced that listeners will find much of this music far more tonal than other music we normally associate with this period of time. For instance, Zemlinsky and his colleagues more or less rejected the rigid serialism and atonality espoused by the "moderns" such as Berg and Webern.

"Of course, the music of this forgotten generation can be bracing and dissonant, but it usually has tonal resolutions. It is music with tremendous energy � it has teeth," he stressed.

"I sometimes call these composers the 'children' of Mahler."

We in the Bay Area will be able to reap the benefits of Conlon's provocative resolve during the upcoming festival, duly dubbed Romantic Visions from Paradise to the Abyss. A special symposium titled "Out of the Depths to the Light" will open the festival at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Davies. Conlon will introduce the audience to the times and cultural climate that gave rise to the music of this period.

Conlon hopes this programming will help audiences discover "how the arts can nurture each other, and how that cross-pollination expands music's power to enliven and enrich our lives."

Aided by selected San Francisco Symphony musicians playing musical examples, Conlon will focus on the writers and artists, including Oscar Wilde, Dante, and Manzoni, who so powerfully had an impact on this period.

The second program, scheduled for 8 p.m. June 9 and 10, will open with Three Dances, arranged by Conlon, taken from Schreker's The Birthday of the Infanta, Zemlinsky's The Dwarf and the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from R. Strauss's Salome. All of these selections were based on works by Oscar Wilde.

The main event of the program will be a concert performance of Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy, also inspired by Wilde, featuring soprano Carol Vaness (Note: Kate Aldrich substituted in the performances for the indisposed Ms. Vaness), tenor Kim Begley and bass-baritone James Johnson.

One of the world's greatest descriptive, dramatic blockbusters, Giuseppi Verdi's Requiem, will be conducted by Conlon at 8 p.m. June 15, 16, 17, 21 and 24, and at 5 p.m. June 25 at Davies. Conlon has assembled some superstar soloists � soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Frank Lopardo and bass Vitalij Kowaljow � to join the Emmy award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus in singing this vivid depiction of infernal terrors and luminous vistas of paradise.

The Pacific Boychoir, Ragazzi Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Boys Chorus will join Maestro Conlon and the symphony to perform Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini and Liszt's Dante Symphony at 8 p.m. June 22.

A special slide presentation of the paintings that inspired the Liszt work has been created to accompany the Dante performance. The entire Dante Symphony, complete with the slide presentation and Conlon's related commentary and instrumental examples, will take up the whole period during the Friday 6.5 Series performance beginning at 6:30 p.m. June 23. All the other festival performances will feature Conlon's special talks, geared to be both enlightening and entertaining, one hour prior to each of the concerts. These will be available to all ticket-holders.

In spite of his vast international fame and acclaim, Conlon himself is American to the core. Born in Manhattan in 1950 and raised in Queens, he was one of five children in a household led by an Irish father and a German-Italian mother. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art and proceeded to study conducting at the Juilliard School.

He made his professional operatic debut in 1971 and his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic (at the invitation of Pierre Boulez) in 1974. Since then he has conducted major orchestras and opera companies throughout the world, as well as starring in PBS music presentations and documentaries.

In 1999, he received the Zemlinsky Prize, awarded only once before, and in 1996, was named an Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government. In 2002, he received France's highest distinction, the Legion d'Honneur, from President Jacques Chirac. He will also assume the conductorship of the Los Angeles Opera from Kent Nagano this coming 2006-07 season.

. . . . . . . . .