Concert retrieves music from Holocaust’s silence

James Conlon, music director of the Ravinia Festival, has a mission. Since 2005 he has championed music by composers from Germany, Austria and other Eastern European countries, some Jewish but some not, who were silenced by the Third Reich.

On July 29, Conlon conducts George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” played by Kevin Cole, and a special program of works by Erwin Schulhoff, Otto Nicolai, Felix Mendelssohn, Carl Maria von Weber, George Gershwin and in assorted jaunty numbers by Johann Strauss, Sr., and his far more illustrious son.

“What if the history of Europe had been different. There is a gap of two generations in the history of classical music. I want the music of the composers of that era to be heard,” said Conlon.

For the work by Schulhoff, Conlon will conduct the CSO in the Scherzo movement from the composer’s Fifth Symphony. He has recorded the entire work and he conducted the Scherzo in a concert last April with Los Angeles Philharmonic. Richard S. Ginell, who reviewed the concert, called the Scherzo “a terrific piece of thunderous, aggressive, angry, relentlessly churning writing.”

Schulhoff, a Czech composer inspired by jazz, has one of the saddest stories. Doubly in peril from the Third Reich for his Communist leanings and his Jewish heritage, he was sent to a concentration camp and died there of tuberculosis at age 48.

Interesting, but less known, was that Nazis banned performances of music by Mendelssohn, because of his Jewish heritage, though his reputation had been well established during his short life from 1809 to 1847.

Ravinia’s President and CEO Welz Kauffman has encouraged Conlon’s initiative.

“James is on a passionate mission to ensure that these composers and their works are not lost to history,” he said. “He’s engineered performances around the world to fill a void left in the musical timeline of the 20th century.”

Like Conlon, Kauffman understands that the goal of performing the works is not to create instant musical hits. “Whether audiences embrace these works or not, he just wants them to listen without prejudice…some audiences resist attending such concerts fearing that they will be too dark or heavy or chaotic, but for the most part the suffering of the Holocaust is not the subject of these works, but simply the period.”

Conlon agreed. “The music of these composers was born out of the same tradition as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. They belong on programs with those composers.”

In 2007 Conlon was honored with the Crystal Globe Award from the Anti-Defamation League during a dinner at the Ravinia Festival. It was presented to him by the late Michael Rubinstein of Highland Park.

“Michael was on the executive board of the ADL,” said his wife Audrey, who is a member of Ravinia’s board of trustees. “We became friendly with James after he came to Ravinia. Michael really lobbied the ADL for this award because James was on a one-man mission to resurrect the music of composers whose music was lost due to the Holocaust.”

On that August evening Conlon spoke eloquently of the motivation of his mission, citing the grave injustice of suppressing the music of so many composers. Lost lives cannot be restored, he said, “but for these composers, you can do the one thing that would have meant the most to them which is to perform their music.”

‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and other works

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ravinia Festival, 418 Sheridan Road, Highland Park

8 p.m. July 29, gates open 5 p.m.

Pavilion: $$25-$80; lawn $10; dining and concert package $75

(847) 266-5000 or ravinia.org

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