James Conlon leads the San Francisco Symphony in a little “Entartete Musik”

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Composer Erwin Schulhoff

Composer Erwin Schulhoff

Davies Hall, San Francisco
Friday, April 25, 2014
The San Francisco Symphony
James Conlon, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Mark Inouye, trumpet

Schulhoff – Allegro con brio from Symphony No. 5 (1938)
Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Opus 35 (1933)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 74, Pathetique (1893)

If nothing else had been performed this week at the San Francisco Symphony, the Scherzo from Erwin Schulhoff’s Fifth Symphony would have been worth the ticket. James Conlon has become an authority in recent years on the subject of “Entartete Musik,” which is to say, music forbidden performance by the Nazis. And he had the daring to program just what he thought the audience would enjoy. I made a point after the concert of listening to several complete symphonies by Schulhoff and concluded Conlon was right to include just the Scherzo from the Fifth Symphony in his program, at least this time around. The music was both remarkably exciting (about which more in a moment), not too long and utterly hilarious, due to the brilliant and edgy talk Conlon gave from the podium before performing it.

Schulhoff, like so many early twentieth century composers, was something of his own worst enemy, tweaking the wrong establishments at every turn. Of Czech-German-Jewish background, he went through virtually every phase and “ism” to be found on the musical map. Beginning with a fascination for the dodecaphony of the Vienna School, he rapidly moved on to Dada, Jazz, and ultimately came to rest in Socialist Realism, becoming a Soviet citizen just in time to be arrested by the Nazis for being a Communist and sent to a camp, where he died in 1942 from tuberculosis. Along the way, he was fairly successful and taken seriously as a composer, winding up with a harmonic language no harder to listen to than Hindemith or Tubin. But it is the extra-musical dimension to his work which made him stand out—and from the distance of time amusingly so.

James Conlon, the Juilliard musical protege of the late 1970s, spent much of his career in Germany, where he made a name as General Music Director of the City of Cologne. He now speaks with a slight German accent, as a result. But his sense of humor has remained American. Schulhoff, he informed us, wrote a piece where a performer stands up repeatedly saluting and screaming “Deutschland über Alles.” That got the audience’s attention, for certain, but nothing like mention of the next piece Schulhoff wrote in his Dada phase, an orchestral essay for “solo woman,” as Conlon put it. The audience began to snicker, and with just the right dramatic pause, Conlon went on to say “That’s right!” And indeed, there is such a piece, a sort of screaming “Bolero” devoted entirely to a woman’s orgasm.

In his next and final phase, Schulhoff went on to set the Communist Manifesto to music. And if you think the Shostakovich Seventh has a numbing and insistent quality, try one of the Schulhoff Symphonies.The Scherzo to the Fifth Symphony, Conlon went on to say, is like “sticking your finger in a light socket and keeping it there.” And, boy was it ever!. The music lasts about ten minutes but overwhelms the audience even more than Honegger’s Pacific 231. It begins by slugging you in the head and keeps pounding to the very end. I’ve never seen a timpanist go crazy for such an extended period pounding two drums at once. Even a deaf listener would have gotten the point. The audience erupted in real cheers at the end—it was the very definition of musical excitement.

I almost regretted, though, later going to a streaming site and listening in full to Schulhoff’s Third and Fifth Symphonies. His music has a repetitious insistent quality that gets under your skin. All five of them were written in his Communist period. The Third, in particular, has a first movement entirely devoted to a remarkably annoying proletarian march that gradually gets louder, and is just catchy enough to stick in your head for days. I tried to wash the tune out of my head, but it kept coming back to me for a week in the shower. Schulhoff learned too well from Ravel! In preparation for this review, I have deliberately not listened to it again!

The rest of the concert could only be a shadow of this, and Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto with trumpet seemed like a pussycat of Dada-influenced Marxism by comparison. Jean-Yves Thibaudet came out dressed like a fussy Dracula and gave a witty, surfacy performance of the concerto with his long fingers. There other ways to play this for more depth, but it worked. Mark Inouye’s trumpet playing, especially when soft, was remarkably beautiful, and James Conlon was on the same page with both.

The Tchaikovsky symphony, after intermission, was a model of middle-of-the-road excitement. This is Conlon’s way, perhaps a touch anodyne, and it may explain why we don’t seek him out on CD for mainstream repertory more than we do. Conlon doesn’t seem to find anything special in the piece. We are so used to having the Pathetique pulled about like taffy, that this was almost a relief. Yet the finale did not seem tragic, somehow, and the audience was insufficiently moved to delay its applause.

But one wanted to applaud the concert, anyway, for bringing us the Schulhoff, and Conlon was heartily received. With any luck, given that it was date night, the younger listeners in the hall went home to hunt for the piece for “solo woman”!

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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