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James Conlon Tells a Tale of Two Émigrés

June 17, 2019

As if he didn’t have enough on his plate this month, James Conlon took time out from presiding over Los Angeles Opera’s production of Verdi’s La traviata to strike another blow for his ongoing Recovered Voices project. It didn’t involve much travel — just a walk from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion one block south on Grand Ave. to the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, Saturday afternoon (June 15). He took some of his expert players from the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra with him, too.

The result was an invigorating hybrid concert/lecture devoted to a pair of Austrian composer émigrés who found their ways to Los Angeles in the 1930s and ended up making their marks in very different ways. One in effect continued the German post-Romantic line by taking his musical language directly to the Hollywood film industry. The other started a musical revolution that usurped and outlawed the German post-Romantic line for a while after World War II, certainly in academia. They were Erich Wolfgang Korngold of Toluca Lake and Arnold Schoenberg of Brentwood.

Of course, Korngold and Schoenberg were two of the lucky ones who got out of Europe in time, but Conlon’s reach extends to a lot of Central European composers whose music was either banned by the Nazis, or fell out of fashion after the war, or both. And rather than select music that Korngold and Schoenberg wrote when they lived in Southern California, Conlon opted for earlier works from Europe — Korngold’s String Sextet, Op. 10, written when he was just a teenager, and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, which predates his atonal period.

 

In one of his two talks before the performances, Conlon confessed that he is especially drawn to music that perches on the edge of tonality, pushing the envelope yet without spilling over into atonality — and the Chamber Symphony is squarely in that zone, the Sextet somewhat less so. He illustrated his lectures with several photographs of the Korngold and Schoenberg families and a fascinating map of Los Angeles that pinpointed the approximate spots where many of the most notable European émigrés used to live.

The Korngold Sextet can be compared to the Mendelssohn Octet (also the work of a teenager) in its high level of technical sophistication and tunefulness, though I wouldn’t rate it as a work of true genius like the Octet. It takes the lush post-Romantic language of Korngold’s predecessors and peers as a given, flowing continuously along at varying levels of inspiration, best in the bumpy peasant dance of the Finale. Oddly enough, I hear more late-period Richard Strauss in this music than the Strauss that Korngold would have known at the time, which would make him a prophet of sorts. The sound that the L.A. Opera Orchestra sextet produced in Zipper Hall under Conlon’s direction was warm, moderately dark, and plushly textured, a great match for the material.

In the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, which doesn’t need as much championing, as it is second only to Verklärte Nacht among his works in frequency of performances and recordings, Conlon led 15 players through a sure-footed, energetic account, with its main whole-tone theme always taking off like a rocket. The balances sometimes tended to favor the horns, but when things evened out, you could get a clear window into Schoenberg’s labyrinth of intricate detail.

This was the final concert of the season for the Pittance Chamber Music series, an outlet for musicians from the L.A. Opera Orchestra. Conlon had appeared with them once before in a Mozart/Mendelssohn program two years ago, and they are trying to get him back again next season. Tickets were only $10. Such a deal!

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.