Undiscovered Country

BRIAN KELLOW interviews conductor, intellectual and administrator Leon Botstein, who next month leads the American Symphony Orchestra in a concert highlighting the music of forgotten interwar Hungarian composers.

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Botstein leading the ASO
Steve J. Sherman
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Ernst von Dohnányi
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Ödön Pártos

How to reshape and reinvigorate the concert and opera repertory has long been an abiding concern of Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College and co-artistic director of the musically enterprising Bard Festival, among his many other involvements. Opera lovers may be particularly indebted to Botstein for his exploration of seldom-performer Strauss operas, including Die Ägyptische Helena (2003) and Die Liebe der Danae (2001), which he recorded live for Telarc.

But the American Symphony's final program of this season, Hungary Torn, May 2 at Carnegie Hall, stretches even Botstein's definition of undiscovered country. The conductor has put together a group of pieces by five Hungarian composers — Ernst von Dohnányi, László Gyopár, Mihály Nádor, László Weiner and Ödön Pártos — whose careers were stifled by the anti-Semitism that swept across Europe between the two World Wars. Featured soloists include violist Péter Bársony, violinist Barnabás Kelemen, soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, tenor Brian Cheney, mezzo Jamie Barton and baritone Leon Williams, in addition to The Collegiate Chorale singers, led by James Bagwell. OPERA NEWS spoke with Botstein about the inspiration for this season-ender. 

OPERA NEWS: Recently, I've had occasion to study the period of Hungary between the wars, and I was quite curious to see that you had put together an entire concert program built around this era. This is music that I'm assuming very few people in the New York audience are going to know much about.

LEON BOTSTEIN: Yes, some people seem to think I should be committed to an institution! But I think that the repertoire is so much richer than most of what we get to hear. I have made an attempt, as you probably know, to merge performance with scholarship. That has worked well in the Baroque and Classical eras, but it hasn't quite taken hold in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century repertoire, which is a shame. There are corners of it being obsessively looked at from this point of view — Mahler being one. But it doesn't translate to performance practice. I just did, this weekend, a concert performance of Die Walküre, using the critical edition done in 2002, and there are lots of indications from the Bayreuth premiere — Wagner's own indications — which cut against what you and I would consider standard performance practice. People make ritards, and Wagner says no ritards. They sing with sentimentality, and Wagner says no sentimentality. The whole matter of Wagnerian sonority is a matter for real thinking. I think it should be more like Webern and Mendelssohn than it should sound like Strauss and early twentieth-century sonority. 

ON: What was the genesis of this Hungarian program?

LB: I've done a great deal of study of the Anschluss and what happened to the Jewish musicians of that time. Now, back at the ranch, I've conducted a bit in Budapest, and at Bard College we have a close relationship with the Liszt Academy in Budapest. We have a lot of Hungarian fellowships and some endowed fellowships for Hungarian students. I'm in Budapest a fair amount. Obviously, an interesting question is the special fate of the Hungarian Jewish community. As you know Budapest before the war was known as "Youdapest" [Judapest]. Twenty-three percent of the population was Jewish. There was this hugely fabulous musical life in Budapest. The three commissars of music were Kodály, Ernst von Dohnányi and Bartók, during Béla Kun's brief rise of Communism. I have always been interested in the work of Dohnányi, who has been accused of collaboration — an older man whose wife at the time was probably a Fascist sympathizer. And he didn't leave, and played in Germany, and got himself into a de-Nazification process. Was he a bad guy? No. I've done the Dohnányi First and Second Symphonies, and some Bartók as well. 

I came upon a piece by László Weiner. And it occurred to me — what happened to all of the Hungarian students of Dohnányi, Kodály and Bartók and Weiner? I thought, there must have been so many people who didn't make it, and people whose careers were destroyed by it.

A very interesting violist, Péter Básony, was doing a dissertation on this and came to see me, in Budapest. He said, "Listen, I've followed what you do and I have discovered all of this music by people"— none of whom I'd heard of. So that's how the project began. I got help from a colleague here at Bard, Peter Laki, who edited a book on Bartók [Bartók and His World.] I don't speak or read Hungarian. So between the two of them, they made a variety of recommendations. But the biggest credit goes to Péter Bársony, who recommended a bunch of pieces. I made the decision that to do honor to these people is to place them in a real tradition, so it doesn't feel like a memorial concert — you know, the kind of thing where you think well of them only because you feel sorry for them. I didn't want to do that. 

ON: Were you also spurred on by the current revival of anti-Semitism in Hungary?

LB: Yes. Peter and I were talking, and I said, 'Let's do this sooner rather than later,' because the controversies over Hungarian politics today have flared up, with the creation of a very far-right party. The real struggle there over fundamental issues of tolerance and democracy makes this no longer an academic matter. In places like Poland and Germany, the Jewish question is similar to our relationship to the Native Americans — first you wipe them out, and then you make museums for them. There are still over 100,000 Jews in Budapest — the largest single Jewish community in Europe outside of Russia. There's a Jewish population, but its statistical presence bears no relationship to what it was before the Second War. 

ON: But in the U.S., we have very little awareness of this part of Hungarian music history.

LB: No. One thing that attracted me about this project was that many of those who died had their advocates. There was the whole wonderful "Entartete Musik" project that Michael Haas was involved with [at Decca Records in the 1990s]. But it didn't really wander into the Hungarian repertoire.

ON: That brief Hungarian fling with Communism in 1918 is so interesting. And it's amazing how the Jews were later blamed for bringing it on.

LB: The Jews had the misfortune in European history of being held responsible for two ills. They were held to be the ultimate capitalists and exploiters — unscrupulous, shifty with money. Jews were sympathetic to communism and socialism because they promised a Utopian resolution of ethnic and nationalistic differences. The Jews had two choices — either they were Zionists or they were socialists. Solving the Jewish question politically was a conundrum. We got hammered as Jews, and then we got hammered as Communists! spacer 

More information can be found at the American Symphony Orchestra.

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