JSO’s ‘Days of Light’ marks Holocaust memorial

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO), like numerous other purveyors of cultural wares these lockdowned days, has lined up an intriguing and attractive roster of shows for the near future.

THE JERUSALEM Symphony Orchestra. (photo credit: DAVID VINOKER)
THE JERUSALEM Symphony Orchestra.
(photo credit: DAVID VINOKER)
Presumably, many of us are glad to see the back of 2020. And milestone dates, such as January 1, are so often touted as an opportunity for change, particularly in the context of political rhetoric. But this is culture we are talking about here, an area of life that, sadly, has been criminally neglected by the government since the pandemic broke out.
But the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO), like numerous other purveyors of cultural wares these lockdowned days, has lined up an intriguing and attractive roster of shows for the near future. This month’s offerings have, to date, included “A Festive Concert for the New Year,” taking in works by Bach, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, while the fun Opera Hits Concert, in cooperation with the Jerusalem Opera, offered something of an operatic “greatest hits”, with hummable arias and songs culled from such popular works as Mozart’s comedic “Cosi fan Tutte,” Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” and “La Danza” by Rossini.
On a less joyous – but certainly no less momentous – note, on January 27 (8 p.m.) the JSO will commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day with the “Days of Light” concert. The program features a fascinating lineup of three works created between the world wars by composers who interface at various personal and professional junctures in their bios. The agenda includes the “Pulcinella Suite” written by Igor Stravinsky for a one-act ballet, Erich Korngold’s “Much Ado about Nothing,” and the suite from “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” by Kurt Weill. The latter may be recognizable to more contemporary, and younger, audiences as “Alabama Song,” evocatively recorded and performed by 1960s American rock band The Doors and later by rock megastar David Bowie.
STEVEN SLOANE, for one, is delighted that the series can go ahead – albeit in the now customary virtual format – and will be on the podium for the Days of Light performance. The concert is, in fact, a reprise of a slot in last year’s Israel Festival, which was presented online back in September but is a thematic shoo-in for next week’s event.
“This is a program I have wanted to do, because I wanted to do a special kind of program that I thought would be interesting,” says Sloane who has served as music director of the JSO for close to two years.
And highly pertinent for the forthcoming date, which marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation, by the Red Army, of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp.
“There is this whole thing of entartete Musik, degenerate music,” Sloane notes, referencing the Nazi government’s early 1930s classification of any art form considered to be harmful or decadent. In general that applied to anything created by Jews, blacks or any other non-Aryan artist, and took in jazz and works written by the likes of such as Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler, both of whom were born into Jewish families.
Korngold and Weill were also Jewish and, while Stravinsky was not, his jazzy and modernist tendencies were repudiated by the Nazi regime. The German authorities were eager to ensure their Aryan citizens were aware of what they should be avoiding, and various forms of degenerate art were exhibited to the public from early 1938. That included a showing in Düsseldorf curated by Hans Severus Ziegler, a German publicist, theater manager and Nazi Party official who was at the time, superintendent of the Weimar National Theatre.
Ziegler’s opening remarks at the exhibition explained that the decay of music was “due to the influence of Judaism and capitalism.” The roster of artists whose works were considered to be anathema to the Nazi doctrine included Stravinsky, Jewish Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, Weill and Paul Hindemith. The latter was not Jewish but he was a modernist who collaborated with both leftist and Jewish musicians. Interestingly, Hindemith was periodically extolled and subsequently demonized by the Nazi leadership and was even initially lauded by Herman Goebbels, in 1934.
ALL THREE composers featured in next week’s program emigrated to the United States and all fed off the energies and cultural vibes of their adopted country. That came into the thinking behind the lineup, as did current plain old pandemic logistics.
“There was the dramaturgical idea and we had to choose pieces that were the right size, that we could play, because we can play only chamber music right now because of social distancing,” Sloane explains. “It was a bit of a challenge, but I think it is a wonderful program.”
Not only did all the featured composers experience rejection by the Nazi regime, they also used their new cultural surroundings as a springboard for creative departures.
“They all found a new [musical] language when they arrived in the United States,” adds the conductor. “That was the idea behind the program.”
All three also went on to enjoy great success across the other side of the Pond. Korngold, in particular, was soon embraced by Hollywood and became one of the most prolific contributors of scores to the movie industry. He was nominated three times for an Oscar, winning one for his soundtrack for The Adventures of Robin Hood, in 1939.
In fact, Sloane has something of an “ulterior” interest in Korngold’s life.
“There is a personal connection,” he says. “My mother dated Korngold’s son. My mother jokes that I was almost Stevie Korngold,” he laughs.
Sloane and Weill shared similar career paths in that they took on a new professional guise in the States, successfully bridging the gap between classical music and materials designed for more commercial consumption.
“Weill was considered a great composer of serious music in Germany,” Sloane notes. “And in America he became one of the great fathers of the American musical.”
The conductor was keen to offer a broad sweep of performance format and mindset.
“I wanted to have the “Pulcinella” because I really loved the fact that it is an orchestral showcase and really brought out the individual playing of our orchestra. And the “Mahagonny” goes into the whole Brestian world, a completely different aesthetic, a rather satirical, negative view of mankind.”
General public acceptance notwithstanding, all three composers were still outsiders and, as such, could proffer a more objective critique of life in their adopted homeland. That, says Sloane, is the case with the Weill piece.
“It offers a view of America as being this landscape paved with gold that actually never fulfilled its promise of being generous.”
Dystopian viewpoints aside, Sloane says he is delighted to have the opportunity to work in this country on a more frequent basis.
“I made my debut as a conductor in Israel with the JSO, around 35 years ago. This is a sort of homecoming for me.”
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