Wednesday, September 14, 2011

bombs and conferences

So that was a long time to go without blogging! Sorry folks. My last post stirred up a debate with, of all people, Alan Gilbert. So much for remaining below the radar. When it comes down to it, of course, these are issues to be debated in the blogosphere and maybe the academic world -- by all accounts, the New York Phil gave a stunning performance and did a service to the victims and those who survive them. I doubt anyone thought, in the middle of the glorious final moments, that it wasn't the right piece for the time.

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Last weekend I went to a conference. An academic conference! And it was pretty awesome. My friend Emily Richmond Pollock, who's writing what should be a fascinating dissertation on postwar German opera, organized a Berkeley summit of scholars to talk about Music in Divided Germany (aka music in Germany from 1945 to 1989 -- though sometimes a little before and sometimes a little after). There were three days of papers, some gripping discussions, and only a mild amount of snark. You can take a look at the schedule here.

I gave the spiel I've been rehearsing for months now about Bernd Alois Zimmermann and the atomic bomb. The short of it is, BAZ wrote at the end of his Soldaten score that an atomic mushroom cloud should be visible on stage; a few years earlier, he also wrote a similar nuclear explosion into the end of his failed opera attempt Les Rondeaux, which never got beyond the libretto phase. I traced the origins of those endings in conjunction with the history of the bomb in Germany -- it wasn't until the late '50s and early '60s (when these operas were written) that Germans began engaging critically with the bomb and the world opened its eyes to what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In light of these historical connections, I compared Soldaten to similarly bleak theories of the philosopher Gunter Anders.

But enough about me, here are some things I learned last weekend:

*What's the most performed German opera written after World War II?

It's Udo Zimmermann's Weisse Rose, which has had over 1000(!) performances since 1967. Boris van Haken, who unveiled the Eggebrecht horrors last year, spoke about the opera's Dresden premiere and its reworking into a version acceptable for West Germany -- he'll also apparently be behind the upcoming Wagner & Jews & Bayreuth & Hitler exhibit coming to Wahnfried in summer 2012.

*Denazification was tricky business. Pamela Potter and Toby Thacker both gave papers addressing issues of denazification -- in Potter's case, the problem of the Third Reich being off-limits to a generation of musicologists because their professors had participated in it and retained their positions following the war. Thacker, who is working on a Goebbels bio now, discussed various aspects of denazification, distancing himself from the common notion that it was a complete and total failure. Musically, it's pretty easy to see how many ex-Nazis went on to have successful careers; but as Thacker pointed out, full-scale denazification would not have been possible hand-in-hand with a continuation of society. American officials were charged with reviving high-level German culture, and the feat of creating full-size orchestras contradicted directly with rigorous denazification. The Zero Hour, like the decade which preceded it, was gray-on-gray.

*Furtwangler wasn't the only one to conduct Beethoven 9 in 1950s Bayreuth. This was a shocker -- I had no idea that Hindemith, in 1953, led the Festspielorchester in Beethoven's final symphony. Everyone knows the famous Furtwangler recording, probably the best ever of the piece.

But for whatever reason (we won't know until the Bayreuth archives are fully cracked), the Wagner brothers invited Hindemith after Furtwangler. Neil Gregor attempted to parse out some of the issues behind it, and the criticism of the performance -- more cerebral than spirited, more classical than Romantic -- is not far from what Boulez would receive a couple decades later when he led his Ring. The question that Gregor raised, which is an interesting one, is how much this had to do with Hindemith's Weimar modernist past, or even his Mathis der Maler days. I'd love to hear a recording, but apparently none exists.

*Stasi was everywhere. So this was pretty obvious, but I had no idea the extent to which the East German state police had infiltrated many, many musical organizations. In the awesome keynote by Amy Beal, Joy Calico, and Anne Shreffler, Calico raised the issue that there still needs to be much research done into what relationship Stasi informants had to GDR musical life.

*Boris Blacher wrote some pretty good music. Emily gave an excellent paper on his Abstrakte Oper Nr. 1, a weird surreal thing, which unfortunately doesn't have a commercial recording. Andrew Oster also presented on Blacher's Die Flut, the first opera written in Berlin after the war (1946) -- a radio opera, which has much in common with the Trummerliteratur being written at the time.

The Brechtian chorus which starts at 3:55 turns outwards, painfully:
"O friends,
Treat this play as a mere soap bubble.
Dream about the colorful spheres,
floating upwards towards the blue sky
only to burst before they reach it."