Don Roth on the ‘Recovered Voices’ Project

In the 1930s and ’40s, the Nazi regime in Germany and elsewhere in Europe banned and destroyed what it deemed “degenerate art” — modern styles of literature, visual art and music it considered un-German. This spring, UC Davis’ Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts hosted a unique program aimed at reviving and restoring the music of composers whose careers and lives were disrupted — or worse — during those years.

In this episode, Mondavi Center Executive Director Don Roth discusses the project and the two-day event, called “Recovered Voices,” which featured two concerts of the nearly-lost music along with a symposium including faculty from the UC Davis Jewish Studies Program.

Roth also looks back at his 17-season tenure as executive director of the Mondavi Center as he prepares to retire on Aug. 31.

More information:

Recovered Music, Rescued Writings (Dateline UC Davis)

Recovered Voices Program at the Mondavi Center for the Arts

The Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices

Mondavi Center Mainstay Don Roth to Retire After 17 Seasons (Dateline UC Davis)

[00:00:00] Don Roth What he discovered was that there was some absolutely amazing music that had been lost and had the Nazi regime not taken place, some of these composers would have been among the biggest stars of the classical music world, the opera world in particular in Europe.

[00:00:25] Soterios Johnson In the 1930s and '40s, the Nazi regime in Germany and elsewhere in Europe banned and destroyed what it deemed degenerate art, modern styles of literature, visual art and music it considered un-German. This spring, UC Davis' Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts hosted a unique program aimed at reviving and restoring the music of composers whose careers and lives were disrupted or worse during those years. The two-day event called "Recovered Voices," featured two concerts of the nearly-lost music. This is The Backdrop, a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas. I'm Soterios Johnson.  Don Roth is executive director of the Mondavi Center and was instrumental in creating the event. Welcome to The Backdrop, Don.

[00:01:07] Don Roth Oh, thanks a lot, Soterios. Glad to be here.

[00:01:10] Soterios Johnson So the Recovered Voices program was a collaboration between UC Davis and the Ziering Conlin Initiative for Recovered Voices at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. Could you talk a little bit about that and how you ended up bringing the program to the Mondavi Center?

[00:01:25] Don Roth Yes. Glad to. I've known James Conlin, who's currently the music director of the Los Angeles Opera, he's been there for 16 or 17 years. And he's had this passion project for almost 30 years of recovering the music of these composers who were suppressed by the Nazi regime. Some of it, as you mentioned, was stylistic. It was about art that they perceived as modern and degenerate. Some of it was art, in fact, that was very accessible and what you might call conservative in its style, but was written by Jewish composers or by composers who were politically against the regime or by composers who were gay. So there were, you know, as we know, the Nazis repressed any number of different people for any number of reasons. In any case, I've known Conlin for over 20 years, so we worked together at the Aspen Music Festival, and I try to get to Los Angeles and hear him cnduct. He's an amazing conductor and as well as speaker. And for when he first came to Los Angeles, he actually recovered a number of operas that had been written by these composers who were repressed by the Nazis. And then recently, as you mentioned, he found a new home for this project at the Colburn Conservatory of Music Institute, which is absolutely an educational treasure for music education on the West Coast. And he was able to land it there with the Ziering Conlin initiative for Recovery of Voices, and he hopes this will become the basis for a long-term, structurally secure effort to bring back this lost music. In any case, during COVID, but back after the opera had started giving performances again. I went down to see an opera, and afterwards I met outside with James because it was still here. It was still times when we couldn't meet backstage and and we, you know, we were through our masks. We we discussed with enthusiasm to find a way for him to bring this project to us. You know, and the advantage of a place like the Mondavi Center is we we're on this amazing campus with all these faculty resources, with all the scholarship, the learning, the teaching that goes on. And so we believed that if we were able to bring the music of the project, we could also surround that with some real contextualizing information that our faculty members would have. So he said, Well, I think I have a way because I'm working with these amazing Colburn students, and I think we could help bring bring them up and do a couple of programs. And so from at that juncture, there was probably about 18 or 20 months ago I went back to the Mondavi Center and, and talked to my colleagues, particularly Jeremy Ganter, the associate executive director, who's also our director of programing. And we just started to roll our sleeves up and deal with the details. And the end product of that was just very recently we were able to have two concerts by what I would say, these absolutely magnificent musicians from Colburn and a wonderful symposium featuring Maestro Conlon as keynote speaker. But several of our great UC Davis faculty who brought new perspectives to the work he was doing.

[00:05:07] Soterios Johnson So when when did when did James Conlon actually start the the Recovered Voices initiative? Like, how did it come about? When did it start? How long has it been working on this?

[00:05:18] Don Roth Well, he tells the story that back about 30 years ago when he was the music director for the city of Cologne in Germany, which meant he oversaw the opera, the symphony, all the musical activity. Subsequently, he moved and ran the Paris Opera for a decade before he came to L.A. where Placido Domingo had brought him in to be their new music director and conductor. So about 30 years ago, he tells the story he was going out as conductors do, on what I call artist time. They're having dinner at 10:30 at night or 11:00 at night after an opera. He's on his way to an Italian restaurant in Cologne, his favorite Italian restaurant. And there on the radio he heard this beautiful piece of music and he you know, he was a he was a bit of a prodigy. He had been conducting since he was in his teens. When he was at Juilliard, he was picked to conduct La Boheme by Maria Callas. You know, he had quite the background. And he hears this music and he says to himself, I've never heard this piece of music. I've been listening to classical music my whole life since I was a little kid. And then it turned out it was a piece, The Mermaid. It was kind of a tone poem by Alexander Zemlinsky, and he said, I just can't or I never heard this music. So he researched it. And it turned out that Zemlinsky, who had been a big, big, important composer starting around the turn of the 20th century in Germany and Austria, his music had been pretty much completely lost. And Conlon started to think, were there other composers like this? And so he began to research and to find the music Zemlinsky kind of being kind of the grandfather of this group. He was the oldest of the group of composers. And what he discovered was that there was some absolutely amazing music that had been lost and had the Nazi regime not taken place, some of these composers, ones that we have excerpts from to listen to some of these composers would have been among the biggest stars of the classical music world, the opera world in particular in Europe. And so that started 30 years ago. When he moved to Los Angeles, he found a receptive administration. He put on about seven or eight operas, one of which by Zemlinsky, is a one act opera called The Dwarf, with a very tragic story about a dwarf who basically lives in a Spanish royal palace and thinks he's beloved when in fact people are mocking him and he and there are no mirrors that he's ever seen. So he doesn't realize that he is deformed and looks not handsome like everybody is telling him he is. And there's not a dry eye in the house when that's over. It's as beautiful a setting of a tragic tale as anything Puccini or Verdi ever wrote. And so he was able James to land this at the opera. There's only a limited, you know, of writing operas is a big deal. So there's only a limited number of operas that fit into that. So he was looking for another home in addition to the opera, and that's when he went to Colburn. Because at Colburn you have educators who are musicologists, you have students who are ready to learn. And one of his goals at Colburn is here's a generation of musicians, the musicians that were -- played at the Mondavi Center, probably, you know, most of them were in their twenties. So what he's hoping is that, you know, this is a new generation for whom this will become standard repertoire as opposed to voices that you've never heard.

[00:09:28] Soterios Johnson Right. And so just to be clear, so these are 20th century composers who lived from the late 1800s through World War Two and beyond. Right? 

[00:09:38] Don Roth And beyond. I mean, some people assume with the recovered voices that we're only talking we're talking about composers who were in the camps. And yes, there are a number of wonderful composers who were in in Theresienstadt, which was the concentration camp that the Nazis held up as the model. You know, they had an orchestra there. And and there was a famous incident where they brought in the International Red Cross to show them how happy all these the inmates of this camp were. They what they neglected to say was that all of them inevitably were going to be shipped to death camps. None of these composers who were there survive, but Schulhoff is one of them. And several of the composers there wrote some fabulous music. And so, yes, there are people who actually, under those circumstances, were still able to create beautiful things. But that is a very small percentage. Most of the composers he's dealing with had a relatively complete life. But the tragedy for them was that music was their life as it is for most composers. And they, you know, they couldn't compose. Or in the case of somebody like Wolfgang Maria Korngold, who many people have heard of, you know, he was in Hollywood making beautiful movie music. He won an Oscar for Robin Hood, you know, he was a big star. But he when he was 21, he had written an opera called Die tote Stadt, The Dead State or The Dead City. That was like the number one hit opera in all of the German-speaking world. Hmm. 21 years old, a Mozart type of thing, that kind of level of genius. And I've heard that opera, San Francisco Opera did it a number of years ago. Fabulous piece. I couldn't believe when I found out that he was 21 when he wrote it. And so his you know, he was going to be the next Richard Strauss, the next Wagner, He was going to be that person. But when he went to Holly -- you know, he went to Hollywood. He was asked to do some film scores. He did. And then he couldn't go home until after World War Two. And ironically, he got when he went back to Germany and Austria, they said, Well, you know, you're a sellout. You just do movie music. You're not a serious composer. And you just you went over there instead of staying here. Well, of course, as a Jewish composer, staying there would have meant most likely his death. But, so even though he lived and prospered, made a lot of money in Hollywood, it was a very tragic life in the sense that this was somebody who, when he was 12 years old, was told by Gustav Mahler that he was a genius. And he was, in fact, a genius. But and he did, you know, Captain Blood in all these great, you know, swashbuckling movies, but his life took a turn that it wasn't meant to take.

[00:12:47] Soterios Johnson All right. Incredible. Let's listen to a short clip of his music. What are we going to hear and why is it special?

[00:12:53] Don Roth Yeah, well, this is from one of the reasons this special is that he was 19 years old when he wrote it. He was still in the German-speaking world. He was in Vienna. They were producing Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing and asked this young Mozart-like genius to write some incidental music for it. And so he did. And I think we're listening to the Overture. One of the things that I think is so important about, you know, if we think about recovered voices, it's a tragic set of stories, but the music is not all tragic. The music is  -- scopes all these revelations. He wrote this in 1918. You know, he didn't know what lay ahead, but it's beautiful, playful music. And I think you'll hear that.

[00:14:45] Soterios Johnson Being an overture. I guess you hear a couple of different themes there and yeah, and it sounds, you know, it's definitely it feels like a romantic classical piece.

[00:14:56] Don Roth Absolutely. So when when Conlin came to the Mondavi Center, he brought six pieces by four different composers. Zemlinsky was one, Korngold was one. Arnold Schoenberg, the most famous of the folks was was one. And then Franz Schreker. And a lot of the music, you know, just is is upbeat. You know, after all, this is incidental music for one of Shakespeare's comedies. And and so it goes through a lot of the moods of the play. But I would say that all of these composers at that time, at the early part of the 20th century, before the Nazis came on the scene, were writing this kind of Romantic or post-Romantic music that was very influenced earlier by Brahms, by Mahler, you know, people who really wrote with a lot of emotional impact.

[00:15:48] Soterios Johnson So that was Korngold. We just heard another featured composer who you mentioned was Franz Schreker. What was his story?

[00:15:57] Don Roth I think of this group of composers. I mean, obviously the people like Schulhoff, who died in the concentration camps, had the most tragic stories. But of this group of composers, I'd say his story was the most tragic. He was an extremely popular composer in Germany. He was in Berlin. He was running the Hochschule, the highest music school job and educational job you could get in Berlin and he ended up dying in 1934, right after Hitler came to power. They had stripped him of his positions. They would not let his music be heard and he died of a stroke. But it certainly is not beyond reason to think that that stroke was impacted -- his health was certainly impacted by this just kind of stress that came out of the blue. He was in his mid-fifties. He was in his prime as a composer, and suddenly his work went away. And his work, you know, because of Korngold's movie career, people remember him and Zemlinsky not so much, but Schreker I'd never heard of him before, you know. And I ran orchestras for 30 years. I never presented a piece of his music ever. And this chamber symphony that was played, you know, I was saying to James Conlon that this is this is the middle piece on any number of wonderful symphony programs, and it's frankly a better piece than many pieces that are in the standard repertoire. It's beautifully orchestrated. It has lots of energy and verve. And, you know, there's absolutely no reason why -- well, there is a reason and the Nazis are the reason, but no reason why this wouldn't be heard along by pieces, by, say, Hindemith or Charles Ives or Copeland or any number of terrific 20th century composers whose works are played all the time. And this piece in particular quite, you know, quite brilliant. And he also wrote operas, one of which Conlon revived back, you know, about ten or 12 years ago. But I was just shocked at how did a how have they missed such a terrific piece of music?

[00:18:30] Soterios Johnson Let's take a listen.

[00:19:57] Soterios Johnson I mean, you mentioned that, you know, he he died in the early thirties as the Nazis were coming to power. So I can see how how his legacy could easily be lost if most of his works were basically at conservatories in Germany or Austria. Maybe they hadn't gotten out to the rest of the world where they might be preserved. So it's kind of almost a miracle that his music is still here with us today.

[00:20:20] Don Roth You're absolutely right. And, you know, he was such a popular composer and, you know, I believe it was his family. You know, he was so well known and his wife emigrated -- essentially escaped to Argentina. And when she came back to Europe, she went to every bookstore and music store. And not a single piece of his music was on the stands. And so, yeah, fortunately, the plates, you know, the publishers retain the plates that you could print the music from. But, yes, you know, with the case of people like Zemlinsky or Bartok, who came obviously from Hungary or or Korngold because they emigrated to America, then they had a presence here. But you're exactly right -- that Schreker's world was the Austro-German world, and they squashed it.

[00:21:16] Soterios Johnson You mentioned Arnold Schoenberg being on the program. I mean, he's considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. So were his early works actually at risk of being lost, or is he kind of included as a recovered voice because the Nazis labeled his work degenerate and banned it from being published?

[00:21:37] Don Roth Yeah, there's actually two reasons. You're absolutely right. He doesn't fit in this in the sense that after he moved to the U.S., Los Angeles, which of course, which is where Korngold was to because he was working in Hollywood, you know, he was he became very well known. He became well known to some people because they hated his new system of 12-tone music. But he was intimately connected to this group of composers whose serious classical music was lost. In particular, Zemlinsky was his only music teacher that he ever had. So Zemlinsky, who was this amazing composer, operas and large symphonic pieces and very little of whose work is known. He was Schoenberg's teacher and they were very close. The music they wrote influenced each other, and when Korngold was taken by his parents to meet Gustav Mahler, when Korngold was 12 years old, Mahler said, This genius needs -- there's only one person who can teach him, and that's Zemlinsky. So Zemlinsky became his teacher. So Schoenberg, the early Schoenberg fits very well into this and frankly, makes a beautiful musical program when paired with the music of these others.

[00:23:03] Soterios Johnson Were the Mondavi Center concerts the only ones happening of these works as part of Recovered Voices?

[00:23:09] Don Roth Yes. The two concerts that happened, the first one, which was the chamber orchestra with works by Korngold, Schoenberg and Schreker. We did Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, which Schreker used as a model for his chamber symphony. That performance was heard two nights later in L.A., but this was the first time it was heard and the only place heard outside of Los Angeles. The second concert was unique to us, so this project was unique to the Mondavi Center -- the two concerts, one of which did get repeated in Los Angeles subsequent to its performance here. And then, as I mentioned earlier, what's so important and what makes university presenters like the Mondavi Center, I think have special value, is that we were able to bring from our Jewish Studies program at UC Davis a couple of marvelous faculty members who sat down at the symposium on Tuesday afternoon right before our second concert and spoke to the audience. First, Conlin spoke about his project, said, you know, recapped much of the reason why this was so important, including the fact that it's a lot of really good music. And then -- then we were joined by Professor Erik Sven Rose from the Jewish Studies program, was also a professor of German, and he spoke about literary documents, mostly poems that were hidden away in various Polish ghettos and only found after the war. And he read some of the poetry, which was absolutely fantastic. And then emerita Professor Diane Wolfe spoke about human beings who were hidden. She spoke about hidden children. Like, you know, we all know about Anne Frank, and there were many in a country like Holland that was, you know, much more receptive to its Jewish population than some of the other European countries. You know, there were many hidden children, and she's written a book about what their lives were like and what happened when they were, in many cases, reunited with their birth parents. And it's a very interesting and very tragic set of circumstances. So Conlon's coming to campus allowed us to build a further context for all the things that were lost, so many other things that were lost as a result of the Nazi regime. And it was very, very stimulating. That's that's the kind of thing that only can happen when you do these events on a campus like UC Davis. And, you know, we always think of lots of the specialties of UC Davis in the sciences, but there's so much amazing work also going on in the humanities and social sciences and we really experience that.

[00:26:11] Soterios Johnson Absolutely. How many composers are we talking about here that the Recovered Voices have been able to recover and how many works?

[00:26:20] Don Roth That's a good question. You know, I don't know the complete answer. I know that there are dozens of composers, and I think that I heard Conlon speak at one point about the fact that he thinks that there are works in six figures that that many works that that came out of these composers. And, you know, with the exception of somebody like Schoenberg, which is, you know, he's included really more for musical reasons, you know, we don't hear these. There were six pieces in the two days, and I had only heard one of them before. And again, I've been in the classical music business a long time.

[00:26:57] Soterios Johnson Right. And in addition to the concerts performed as part of this program, are these works being preserved in other ways? Are there like initiatives to have recordings made of them? Or, you know, are there any other ways that they're being preserved and maybe, you know, disseminated?

[00:27:13] Don Roth Yes. You know, so certainly in some cases, you know, they're we're getting the music printed, You know, like, say, some of Scheker's work existed only as printing plates. You know, it had not been because because the Nazis had destroyed all the published things. So. So in some cases, you're bringing the published music back. The L.A. Opera, for example, did a DVD of The Dwarf, the Zemlinsky Opera -- disseminated that way. At Colburn, they are starting to make recordings of of these works. And I think what's most important to Maestro Conlon is getting the word out so that these get played. You know, recordings are important way of preserving that, but they have to be played first. You really get some of this work in their repertoire. Like I was saying earlier, this Schreker chamber symphony is just, you know, it's a it's a 27, 28 minute piece of music. You know, having done a lot of orchestra programs over the years, that's a perfect middle piece. You know, you have an overture, you've got a 30 minute piece. This could be a concerto, but in this case could be an orchestral piece that's kind of a showcase for the orchestra. And then your big symphony on the second half. These works need to be heard. The incidental music from Much Ado about Nothing, that could open with joyful music any symphony concert. So as he guest conducts, you know, James always brings the music with him so that other orchestras he conducts are learning these pieces. So preserving it in recordings, getting the music printed and just getting it to be played, having more people hear about it.

[00:29:00] Soterios Johnson Well, the program you put on at the Mondavi Center definitely helps to bring the music out and just gets it that much closer to the aim of of having it performed and having it heard and having it learned about like I had no idea. I mean, when, you know, I had known about degenerate art that the Nazis had labeled degenerate art, but I always imagined it being visual art and maybe literature, but it never even occurred to me that they would go after composers and musicians. I mean, you know, for cultural reasons.

[00:29:30] Don Roth Exactly. I mean, yeah, because then you say the degenerate art, you know, they said, Oh, this is horrible. We can't have this. Similar to the way the Soviets reacted to some of Shostakovich's music before they kind of, you know, exiled him and got him to play what they thought was less degenerate music, you know. But, yeah, in this case, I mean, this music -- parts of the Schoenberg chamber symphony sound just like Richard Strauss, who of course lived to 1949 and lived a successful life where his music was beloved. The music of Zemlinsky is no more degenerate than Richard Strauss, than Wagner. It's in the romantic tonal tradition. You know, we know Schoenberg went in a different direction, but the music of these composers is all beautiful, accessible music that there's -- so it's very your point about degenerate art is very, I think, very relevant because in those cases they were trying to make an artistic case. This is not music. This is not art that is positive or puts things ahead. Whereas they they couldn't make that case about these musicians, that the only case they made was they're Jewish and we don't want to hear Jewish music.

[00:30:52] Soterios Johnson Right, Right. So, I mean, just this whole program is in such an important event. And it was so wonderful that you brought it to the Mondavi Center. And this is this is the Mondavi Center's 20th anniversary season, as well as your 17th and last season as executive director. Yeah. You announced you'll be retiring later this year. You've had such an impact on the cultural scene here in Northern California. Looking back at all of your years and all of your accomplishments at the Mondavi Center, what would you say you're most proud of or that really stands out to you when you look back at everything that you've accomplished?

[00:31:28] Don Roth Oh, that's so nice, first of all, Soterios, I appreciate you're saying that. Well, I would say, you know, in in a at the high conceptual level, I mean, to me, what what was important from the very beginning and I inherited a very good program. You know, my first season was the fifth season. And Brian McCurdy, who opened the center, did a wonderful job, established many things. But what was important to me was breadth and quality. Everything. When Jeremy Ganter and I do do the programs, we have to believe that everything we put on is excellent at what it is, you know, excellent in its own field. But, you know, I felt that we could broaden that. And one of the things I was most proud of in my second season, because the first season I, I just inherited it was what it was. The second season we opened with Friday night, we had Kiri Te Kanawa, the great soprano, one of my favorite opera singers of all time, during her farewell tour. And then the next night we had Doc Watson, the absolutely great Appalachian guitarist, singer, musicologist in his own way. And to me, that was -- that's the Mondavi Center.

[00:32:44] Soterios Johnson Talk about breadth, right?

[00:32:45] Don Roth Yeah, exactly. When we can do that one weekend and we had, you know, 1500 people to see Kiri te Kanawa, where you had 1100 people to see Doc Watson, some of them the same people, certainly including me. And and he was, you know, both both lovely people. And so it would be a place where you can have Los Tigres Del Norte, you know, one week and the San Francisco Symphony the next week, you could have, you know, Merle Haggard and you can have Renee Fleming, you know. So I've been very, very proud that we've brought great artists who are in a really broad range of things. You know, I mean, I love special projects like Recovered Voices. When you can bring something that's great artistically, it also has real meaning. And, you know, we've brought so many amazing dance productions, including the recent Swan Lake that was part of our gala for the 20th anniversary season from Ballet Preljocaj. But for me, I think if I can reach many different audiences, some of which overlap, but they don't need to with the art that's important to them at the highest level in such a beautiful space. And so such a blessing for me to be able to work in.  That's that's what makes me feel really good and feel that I've accomplished. I've taken, evolved in the direction that I wanted to see it go. I've had I have a great team. You know, I've mentioned Jeremy the director of Programing, who's amazing. And I just have I'm surrounded by people who love working at the Mondavi Center and love our mission.

[00:34:28] Soterios Johnson Do you have any plans for your next chapter, like with all the free time you're going to have once you retire?

[00:34:34] Don Roth And I've been warned that that you should make sure that time is, in fact, free. You know that you know that you don't you don't fill it up. You know, we're going to stay in Davis. I plan to be at the Mahdavi Center as an audience member many times. My wife teaches violin at the university and plays in the orchestras around here, so. Definitely travel. In many cases, travel to see see some of the artwork that that I love to see. And, you know, I hope to continue to have value. I'm on several nonprofit boards and trying to bring helpful things from the experience I have of my career, which is longer than I want to believe. But I've been doing this a long time. And so, you know, certainly want to give back that way. And yeah, we'll see. It'll be it'll be interesting and different. But it's time I feel that I'm leaving the Mondavi Center in a very strong place. The program's wonderful, the audiences are wonderful, the finances are fine. And I think this is a good time to say farewell and become an audience member.

[00:35:47] Soterios Johnson Well, Don, this has been really great. Thank you so much for coming on to The Backdrop. And thanks for for, you know, being an incredible steward for this cultural beacon in Northern California and for everything you've done to elevate the cultural scene in and around Davis.

[00:36:02] Don Roth Oh, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it. And I very much have enjoyed being able to talk about this very, very important project.

[00:36:10] Soterios Johnson Don Roth is executive director of the Mondavi Center for the Arts and helped create the Recovered Voices program presented there with James Conlon of the Colburn School in Los Angeles. We'll go out now with Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. If you like this podcast, check out another UC Davis podcast, Unfold. Season four explores the most cutting edge technologies and treatments that help advance the health of both people and animals. Join Public Radio Veterans and unfold hosts Amy Quinton and Marianne Russ Sharp as they unfold stories about the people and animals affected the most by this research. I'm Soterios Johnson and this is The Backdrop. UC Davis Podcast Exploring the World of ideas.