Melodies that escaped the Nazis
Music has the unique power to evoke deep emotions and can inspire in ways that no other art form is quite capable of. As such, great works are to be cherished and their composers should be lofted to stations of great admiration.
Sadly, in 1930's Nazi Germany, the opposite ideal was being cultivated. Many great Jewish-German composers of the time were forced from their homeland or simply chose to flee in fear of their own, and their family's lives.
Last Thursday night at the Broad Stage at Santa Monica College's Performing Arts campus, James Conlon presented "Recovered Voices", a short collection of music from deposed Jewish-German composers who found sanctuary Los Angeles after Adolph Hitler's rise to power.
Conlon began the show with a short lecture on the history of the time period using a large, projected map of Los Angeles to show just how many German composers called the city home during that time.
"The social phenomenon of 'brain drain' that follows any type of catastrophe, usually man-made catastrophe in which those that have the means of leaving, they are often the intellectuals, musicians," Conlon said. "Another side of that coin is 'brain gain' and that's exactly what happened to us here in the United States."
Colon then performed a selection by composer Eric Zeisl entitled "The Hunt", a darkly appropriate title given the background of the composer; Zeisl himself fled Vienna with his wife in 1938.
Four young musicians from The Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles, filed onto the stage dressed all in black, each with a golden horn. They played in beautiful unison the jaunty, hunting tune and were met with raucous applause from the audience.
After a quick stage change, pianist Nino Sanikidze and soprano Tracy Cox took the stage to perform four songs by composer Walter Arlen, who fled to Los Angeles in 1938 at the age of 18 and who was in attendance. His compositions were hauntingly beautiful, played to perfection by Sanikidze and sung with flawless fervor by Cox.
Upon their completion, Arlen who is now 94, shuffled to the front of the stage. A small, demure man with a permanent smile, he joked in his high-pitched voice, "Thank you for not applauding between songs. It's so continental."
The evening continued with more fantastic performances, but the music had begun to take a distinctly less jovial tone. Replacing the upbeat horns and sweeping soprano were now discordant piano compositions, made to evoke darker emotions.
With its stabbing staccatos and severe dynamics, the five short pieces written for piano by Arnold Schoenberg were much more polarizing than the work of Arlen and Zeisl.
"That one wasn't really my style," said Linda Weiner, a Colburn graduate and life-long Venice resident.
However, some of the audience found the more arresting, emotional works to be their favorite.
"I thought so much of the music was beautifully painful. There were so many different ways of expressing sadness, and anger, and suffering," said audience member Steven Gordon.
Agreeing with Gordon was audience member Isaiah French who believed that Schoenberg's pieces were able to capture many emotions.
The show closed with a beautiful composition by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer mostly known for his work in film and whose private compositions were almost entirely unheard of until Conlon began performing them.
With a string sextet and piano accompaniment, the hall was filled with beautiful melody, ending the concert on a optimistic note that culture and art should always be cherished and exalted, but never forced into exiled.
"'Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings'," Conlon said, quoting the great German poet Heinrich Heine. In times of uncertainty, hopefully this message will always endure.