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Giving Jewish Composers An Artistic Rebirth

Giving Jewish Composers An Artistic Rebirth

Leon Botstein’s ‘Hungary Torn’ concert celebrates works of Jewish musicians whose lives were disrupted by the Nazis.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

It’s not a memorial concert.

“I think the victims of the Holocaust deserve to be placed back into their historic and musical contexts as composers,” Leon Botstein, music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview last week. “We should not frame this event as an act of compassion. We should resist the irony of re-ghettoizing them as victims.”

Péter Bársony, who will be performing as the viola soloist on Pártos’ “In Memoriam (Yizkor),” echoes Botstein.

“We want to show what happened in one of the hardest periods of the 20th century for Hungary,” he wrote last week in an e-mail interview. “I think this event will be a celebration of Hungarian music, and a small payment towards the settlement of a 60-year-old debt.”

For Bársony, who is a professor at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, that debt has taken on a certain personal resonance, embodied in the music of Pártos.

“In 2007 I recorded Pártos’ Viola Concerto and another piece for viola and orchestra as a world premiere for [the famed classical music label] Hungaroton,” he wrote. “This happened on the 100th anniversary of his birth. … So I had a quite strong connection with his art. In fact, I learned after this program was ready that

Pártos was the first Hungarian violist who performed in Carnegie Hall as a soloist. I am the third one. That was something which has a very important meaning for me.”

But what of the non-Jewish composer on the program, Ernö Dohnányi?

Dohnányi’s case in complicated. On the one hand, in the 1920s and ’30s he had shown courage in opposing anti-Semitic pressures brought to bear on the Hungarian music community by the fascist ruling party. It was Dohnányi who in 1938 “prevented the establishment of the Chamber of Musicians, a fascist organization whose goal was to banish Jews from the cultural life of the country,” as Bársony points out in the program notes to the concert.

But his subsequent reputation was more ambiguous, Botstein explained.

“He certainly had a better case than [German conductor and composer Wilhelm] Fűrtwangler, but he got the reputation of being a collaborator,” the musical director said. “He was naïve and he was unlucky. He was photographed shaking hands with the head of the Arrow Cross movement [the home-grown Hungarian fascist party] and he concertized in Germany during the war.”

Botstein’s conclusion is more sympathetic.

“He was not a hero, but he wasn’t evil,” he said. “Most of us are not heroes. He simply went along. His sons were heroic anti-Nazis, members of the Bonhoeffer circle and very active in the resistance to Hitler. His reputation suffered considerably after the war, but he was a wonderful, underrepresented composer, a fabulous pianist and very influential musically.”

This concert is merely the latest efort in a virtually global movement to restore to the concert stage and music history books the names of countless Jewish composers whose work and lives were crushed by the Nazis. The Czech musicians Erwin Schulhof and Viktor Ullmann are probably the most famous of these rediscoveries, but there have been many others.

What have we learned from this process?

As a prominent educator (he’s the president of Bard College) and historian as well as an active conductor, Leon Botstein is unusually well positioned to answer that question; not surprisingly, his reply links up with his rejection of the “memorial” nomenclature.

“We’ve discovered individual works and composers of worth beyond their status as victims,” he said. “We’ve been able to return them to the context of the artistic world from which they came. As a result, we’ve discovered the richness of that world. When [a significant portion of] European Jewry was wiped out by the Nazis, they erased the memory of a vibrant musical culture, the extent and richness of the talent of that culture. [Today] we concentrate on the most famous of names and pieces and obliterate again the richness from which they have come. It takes little discernment to realize that a Mozart is great; what we are discovering is the mind-boggling depth of craft and artistic talent that was destroyed or rendered discontinuous.”

To perform the work of many of those nearly erased from the history books is to give them an artistic rebirth. As Botstein concluded, “It’s a fresh contribution to the repertoire and it offers a New York audience an opportunity to hear great works for the first time.”

“Hungary Torn” a program of music by Hungarian composers whose careers and lives were disrupted by World War II, will be performed by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein, on Thursday, May 2 at Carnegie Hall (57th St. and Seventh Ave.); the concert will begin at 8 p.m. and will be preceded by a talk by Botstein at 7 p.m. For information, call (212) 868-9276 click here.

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