"It is a midlife love, a recent passion," says conductor James Conlon. "I was in my early 40s when I tripped over Zemlinsky." Now 57, the native New Yorker frequently programs and records the works of this neglected composer and his contemporaries, in addition to leading standard repertoire in major opera houses and festivals worldwide.
After residing in Europe for 21 years, Mr. Conlon has returned to the United States, where he is music director of the Los Angeles Opera, the Ravinia Festival, and the Cincinnati May Festival. But he still feels tied to both Europe and his homeland: "I've had a foot in both worlds my entire adult life," he says.
And in all venues, he is committed to making audiences aware of the work of Alexander Zemlinsky: "I think his cause needs to be pushed because of the extraordinary work he left behind."
Zemlinsky, born in Vienna in 1871, fled the Nazis only to die in New York in 1942 in relative obscurity. Before his emigration, he had a distinguished European career as a conductor and pedagogue, numbering among his students Schoenberg (who married Zemlinsky's sister), Berg, Webern, and Korngold. Zemlinsky championed Czech music along with that of Hindemith, Krenek, Stravinsky, and Weill; was admired for his Mozart and Strauss opera performances; led the world premiere of Schoenberg's Erwartung; and wrote numerous works, including eight operas.
When discussing his mission to promote Zemlinsky, Mr. Conlon points out that "It's not just him — it's a passionate relationship to the whole era" and to the work of those composers who struggled under the Nazis and whose music was suppressed: Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Bohuslav Martinu, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Erwin Schulhoff, and Franz Schreker, to name a few. "It's a gross injustice of history," he says. "It's not just they who were victims — we are the victims. We should know that music, learn it, be challenged by it. That's what drives me."
On October 18-20, James Conlon will lead the New York Philharmonic's first performances of Zemlinsky's 1915-16 one-act opera, A Florentine Tragedy. He describes the piece as being "as compact as Strauss's Salome or Elektra" and "simultaneously a virtuosic, symphonically constructed opera for the orchestra and a magnificent and challenging text by Oscar Wilde." Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey will portray Guido Bardi, a young prince; baritone James Johnson, the middle-aged merchant, Simone; and soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Bianca, whose affair with Guido is cut short when Simone kills him and rekindles his wife's passion.
Zemlinsky composed the work while still suffering from the end of a love affair with a student who jilted him for his friend Gustav — a young woman who would become famous as Alma Mahler. The opera's steamy tale of jealousy, revenge, and murder therefore reflects a true tale of lost love. "Zemlinsky is the husband in this case, and Alma is the wife," Mr. Conlon explains. "The shadow of Alma and their love affair that absolutely broke Zemlinsky's heart is palpable."
The passion of this story and the work of its composer resonate in the heart of the conductor who will lead it. "It's time for us to know this music," Mr. Conlon declares. "I don't mean tokenism or quick characterization. I want that whole period out there. It needs to be heard over and over again."
Lucy Kraus is Senior Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.