Most of us have had the same moment. You are driving in your car and something you can't identify is on the radio. It happened about 20 years ago to American conductor James Conlon.
He was heading home to the Cologne suburbs, where he was general music director for the historic Gürzenich Orchestra and the Cologne Opera. He was transfixed by what was on the radio - not Strauss but something extraordinary from the same post-Romantic period. He had to sit in his car in the driveway until the work ended and the announcer named the piece.
It was music of Alexander Zemlinsky and he was stunned that such wonderful music was unfamiliar to him. His subsequent investigation into that one composer eventually revealed a whole generation of forgotten composers, many who were Zemlinsky's students.
Of these gifted composers, either Jewish or "too modern," often suffered career disruptions during the war years that often irrevocably damaged their careers. Some of the others died in concentration camps, others emigrated and still others remained in hiding when their music fell out of Nazi favor.
Conlon told me this story while still music director of the Paris Opera. In an interview in his Eighth Floor office and studio at the Opera Bastille, overlooking the rooftops, but with a view toward the dome of the Parthenon, he had programmed Zemlinsky's one act opera, The Dwarf, together with Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortileges as part of the regular season in 1998 and again in 2001.
He gave me a copy of the just-released recording he had made of symphonies of Viktor Ullmann who died, while still young, in Trezinstadt. Ullmann's opera, The Kaiser From Atlantis, first appeared under Conlon's direction at the Juillard School but has now been seen at the Ravinia Festival, the Grand Opera of Houston and at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Conlon has made up for lost time and his discography is now flush with Zemlinsky. He has continued his championing of this lost generation of composers with concert performances, opera productions and recordings. This effort includes Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Karl-Amadeus Hartmann, Ernest Krenek and Erwin Schulhoff, Conlon has played works of Erwin Schulhoff, Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker at the Ravinia Festival, where he is music director. At the Los Angeles Opera, where he is also music director, he continues his work with his program, "Recovered Voices."
Schreker's steamy Die Gezeichneten is programmed for the next season. Coming up in April are performances of Walter Braunfels' opera, The Birds. Freely adapting the story from Aristophanes' play, the opera had almost 50 performances after its premiere in 1920. Being half Jewish, he was forced to withdraw from public life and his music was labeled "degenerate" by the Third Reich.
The Los Angeles Opera has programmed The Birds for four performances: April 11 (7:30 PM), April 18 (2 PM), April 23 (7:30 PM) and April 26 (2 PM) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion of the Music Center.
The cast features sopranos D_sir_e Rancatore and Stacey Tappan, tenor Brandon Jovanovich and baritones James Johnson and Martin Gantner. James Conlon is, of course, conducting.
For further information and tickets (priced between $20 and $250), visit www.losangelesopera.com.