Antiwar Opera

The Catalina Chamber Orchestra presents a work by a man created in a Nazi concentration camp.

During World War II, with Europe's capitals in turmoil, innovative, passionately-performed music flourished in a new, horrible kind of cultural center: a Nazi concentration camp.

In what was then Czechoslovakia, many of the nation's Jewish artists had been imprisoned in a camp near a town named Terezín (or, as the Germans called it, Theresienstadt). This was a transit camp for the processing of Jews from central Europe, many of whom would later be transported to such death camps as Auschwitz. In one of the 20th century's most sinister examples of spin, the Nazis presented Terezín to the world as a "model" camp, where the prisoners were allowed to govern themselves--to a point--and to organize cultural events.

The prisoners would perform well-known existing works, such as Verdi's Requiem, but they were also able to introduce new pieces, since the camp held such fascinating if secondary composers as Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann.

These composers and their music were almost forgotten for 50 years; in late 1944, after proudly displaying Terezín to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Nazis sent nearly all the composers and artists to their deaths.

Nearly a half-century after the war began, musicologists and performers suddenly developed an intense interest in the music of Terezín, and the 1990s saw an abundance of high-profile performances and recordings of these works. Ullmann's hour-long chamber opera The Emperor of Atlantis has received no fewer than three recordings in the past 10 years, and now it comes to Tucson in a concert performance by the Catalina Chamber Orchestra.

The ensemble's music director, Enrique Lasansky, first encountered Ullmann's opera while researching Holocaust material. "I was stunned by how good these composers were," he says. "This opera in particular is incredibly powerful."

Scored for seven singers and 13 instruments, including banjo and harmonium (Ullmann employed whatever was on hand), The Emperor of Atlantis is a satire in which Emperor Overall--a stand-in for Adolf Hitler--declares war on the entire world, only to find a formidable conscientious objector in the form of Death. Appalled and exhausted, Death goes on strike; havoc ensues (a plague breaks out, but nobody can die), and Death consents to resume his duties only if the emperor will agree to be his first victim.

Although the work does not deal explicitly with the Holocaust and National Socialism, the Nazis were so disturbed by it that they canceled the premiere. Emperor of Atlantis was not heard until 1975--more than three decades after Ullmann's death at Auschwitz.

The music quotes Josef Suk, Gustav Mahler and J.S. Bach, but overall, Ullmann's style is part Kurt Weill, part Alban Berg. "It's eclectic in the sense that there are atonal sections juxtaposed with very tonal passages," Lasansky says. "Ullmann puts the German national anthem in an atonal setting; that's a wonderful, perfect, satirical statement."

Lasansky acknowledges that Emperor of Atlantis is a strenuously antiwar work, but he sidesteps applying it to America's current adventure in Iraq. "We're going to try to make the message universal," he insists.

The performance, which will begin with the poignant Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No. 5, will include slides amounting to what Lasansky calls "essentially a PowerPoint presentation with supertitles and artwork."

The singers include Tucsonans Elena Todd and Charles Roe, but the vocal music is so difficult that Lasansky also recruited out-of-town singers who participated in a performance in Phoenix two years ago. These include Jeffrey Jones, Karen Hendricks, Kevin Hanrahan and Monte Ralstin.

"It's extremely hard for the singers," Lasansky says. "Most of the parts are very dramatic and cover an extreme range, with difficult intervals and atonal lines." Yet the score shouldn't be such a burden for the audience; its anger is leavened with black humor and even gentleness.

"It's a very noble work of art," says Lasansky. "And the story of the composer and the musicians couldn't be any more poignant. Ironically, in that camp, they got more work than they ever had previously in their lives."

THE CATALINA CHAMBER Orchestra's latest CD, its second, is called New Music of the Southwest, and offers premiere recordings of three quite different but highly accessible works.

First is the Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra by Tucsonan Pete Fine, who doubles as soloist. From the start, this concerto generates some cognitive dissonance: The electric guitar, with its bent notes and intentional distortion, provides a bit of a jolt in a classical context. This is not a rock or crossover piece; it would fit right in with the usual classical repertory if the solo part were reassigned to cello or clarinet.

Once you get used to the unexpected match of instruments, you can settle in for three solidly crafted movements filled with memorable themes. The effect is often that of a film score set free from celluloid; the electric guitar is, after all, an instrument of grand, dramatic, romantic gestures.

Phoenician James DeMars contributes a Flute Concerto, "Big Two-Hearted River," inspired by a Hemingway short story. Featuring superb local flutist Linda Doughty, the work luxuriates in colorful Impressionistic textures. It's vaguely like Ravel, but DeMars' major inspiration was probably the Griffes Poem for flute and orchestra.

The influence of earlier composers is even stronger in Jose Luis Elizondo's Estampas Mexicanas, a little suite imbued with Mexican folk elements. The first movement recalls Carlos Chávez' Sinfonia India, the second pays a visit to Silvestre Revueltas' Sensemayá, and the third also evokes Revueltas, though without adopting the earlier composer's exuberant dissonance.

The performances under Lasansky's baton argue strongly for the music, although the dry acoustic exposes occasional lapses in the strings' intonation.

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