It was a touch ironic and a bit of bashert that the extraordinary British violin soloist who appeared at UCLA’s Royce Hall on March 21 with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra had the name of Hope — Daniel Hope. The occasion was a night to pay tribute to the lost voices of Jewish composers who either perished in the camps of the Holocaust or were forced to flee the Nazi onslaught. The playing of two of the three pieces that evening was of personal significance to both Hope and the celebrated Los Angeles conductor, Jeffrey Kahane. Both had lost members of their families in the Holocaust, and this was a night to both reflect and enjoy. And each composer had experienced persecution in various forms.
The concert began with Erwin Schulhoff’s Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, which Hope had arranged from the original for flute and piano. Conducting and playing the piano at the same time is no mean feat, but Kahane handled this with flourish and flair, plus his amazing ability to segue seamlessly from one to the other.
The beautiful and powerful Schulhoff concerto was followed by Mendelssohn’s Violin Concert in E minor (the 1844 version), and after intermission, Kurt Weill’s Symphony No.2. Just the idea of having Hope play two concertos in succession was formidable enough, but playing, knowing of the horrible fate of the composer (Schulhoff), would have discouraged a lesser musician. But Hope played the concerto with passion and fire. He emphasized the strong rhythms and, in the third movement, the jazz influence that intrigued Schulhoff. The first and second movements form a sort of dialogue between the two soloists with the orchestra doing a little kibbitzing right along, as part of the whole structure.
Commenting on the background of a concert when you already know what happened to two of the three Jewish composers already puts one on high alert. It wasn’t as if I was not familiar with the music of the great Felix Mendelssohn or the “Three Penny Opera” of Kurt Weil who fled Germany in 1933, barely escaping the long arm of the Third Reich, first to Paris then America. But doing my homework on Erwin Schulhoff was another matter entirely. I had sorely neglected to update my knowledge of some of the composers who had lived in Europe just prior to the Holocaust. Born in Prague in 1894 to a musical family, Schulhoff, I learned, subsequently died a horrible death in Wulzburg death camp in 1942 at the age of 48, leaving a huge body of work, including seven symphonies, five sonatas, two string quartets, and much more. Musically and politically motivated (he was also a Communist in addition to his Jewish heritage), he was nearly at the top of his game. Some of his work was composed during the twenties, and as the thirties rolled around one can hear the modern influences of jazz and the blues permeate his music, particularly noticeable in the third movement of his concerto.
Weill’s symphony, though not as popular as his “Three Penny Opera,” had the same biting sarcasm and tragic nuance he is known for. It has been noted that the second movement was written “in mourning for the loss of his homeland.” The Mendelssohn, perennially beautiful, was played beautifully by Kahane and Hope. Just as we had hoped!
During the concert, each soloist spoke to the packed house that night of families and close connections to the Holocaust. While many of Kahane’s family left Germany, his grandfather stayed behind — not believing things could get too bad — as did his grandmother who was later sent to Buchenwald where she perished. His grandfather was arrested on Kristallnacht. Both of his uncles escaped to the United States, and Kahane proudly pointed them out in the audience. “They came here, fought in the U.S. Armed Forces, and they are both here tonight.” Others of his family members were sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And on this night he said, the concert was dedicated “in memory of the two who didn’t get out.”
In his comments Hope remarked that he has been instrumental in bringing to the world the suppressed “voices of the Jewish composers,” whose music was banned by Hitler. Some of his offstage time is devoted to projects that combine words and music, with particular attention to the music and poetry written in the infamous Theresienstadt.
So it was that in Royce Hall in 2010, I was introduced to Schulhoff and surprised and profoundly impressed with his concerto from 65 years ago. Now, one wonders why his and so many other composers’ music of that dark period is not played more often or even at all. Did we let their music die in the Holocaust with them? It was these composers whose music was banned by Hitler, but it seems we have banned their music also. Certainly not intentionally, but dismissed or neglected, certainly.
After experiencing Schulhoff’s concerto, I decided to learn more about the “man,” as well as the “composer.” I was able to reacquaint myself with Schulhoff and his peers a few weeks later at the “Recovered Voices” conference at UCLA. UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, along with the Orel Foundation, have come together to bring this music into the sunlight of 2010, and early last month held a symposium to bring in-depth discussions of the works — particularly the forbidden operas — of Franz Schreker, Alexander Zemlinsky, Stephan Wolpe, Hans Gal and Hans Krasa (who wrote “Wundibar”), and so many others. For those reading this and who have an interest in classical music and opera, I doubt that no more than one in 50,000 Americans would recognize these names and their influence on the modern music scene. Pre-Hitler Germany seemed to have a preponderance of talented musicians and composers, some able to escape, but others banished to Terezin and other deadly camps. Now, thankfully, posthumously, are they regaining their “voices” through the Orel Foundation and the Jewish Studies Department of UCLA, and countless orchestras around the country. So there is hope.