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Survival Musik

One of the more under-reported aspects of Hitler's march through Europe in the 1930s and '40s is the destructive effect it had on culture -- art, science, literature and music. Wherever their regime spread, the Nazis took pains to erase the societal contributions of Jews, and a generation of vital...

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One of the more under-reported aspects of Hitler's march through Europe in the 1930s and '40s is the destructive effect it had on culture -- art, science, literature and music. Wherever their regime spread, the Nazis took pains to erase the societal contributions of Jews, and a generation of vital works was nearly lost to history. There has, in the last 20 years, been an effort to revive those nearly lost works, and here in the Valley, conductor and classical-music advocate Warren Cohen is aiding that endeavor, bringing compositions censored by the Nazis to a new audience.

Warren Cohen has a grand vision for classical music in the Valley, one that he's implementing via a linked ensemble of orchestras collectively known as Musica Nova. Musica Nova is three separate but intertwined orchestras -- the Fine Arts String Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra Scottsdale, and the fully professional Musica Nova Symphony Orchestra, through which Cohen is attempting to educate both the amateur musicians and the audiences. "We're not trying to make it like the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra," Cohen says. "It's a much more educational concept."

This is Musica Nova's inaugural season. The November 9 performance of "Entartete Musik -- Music Suppressed by the Nazi Regime," as they're calling it, marks the orchestra's first major concert. Entartete is a 19th-century German term used to suggest moral and spiritual degeneracy. The Nazis adopted the term to defame atonal music, jazz arrangements and, above all, works by Jewish composers. Because of this censorship, Europe was drained of many of its most talented musicians, performers and composers. England's Decca Records began a revival of these with a series of CDs in the early '90s called Entartete Musik, bringing back to life many forgotten works by the censored composers.

Musica Nova's own presentation of Entartete Musik may well superbly demonstrate Cohen's vision, presenting obscure works by Franz Schreker, Engelbert Humperdinck (the 19th-century composer of "Hänsel und Gretel," not the "After the Lovin'" guy) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold alongside more familiar works by Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn. All of the pieces Musica Nova will be performing, including Mendelssohn's "Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream" and Mahler's "Symphony No. 4 Finale," were targeted for censorship by the Nazi regime, though Mahler died in 1911 and Mendelssohn died in 1847. All of the five composers except for Humperdinck were Jewish by ethnicity, though none was a practitioner of the religion. Humperdinck's opera Konigskinder, from which Musica Nova will play a selection, was banned solely because the librettist -- or lyricist -- was a Jew.

Schreker, a contemporary of the Nazi regime, is the one composer from this performance whose death was directly linked to the rise of the Third Reich. He was a prominent composer who taught at the Prussian Academy in Berlin, but was stripped of his posts by the Nazis and died of a heart attack shortly afterward.

The other contemporary of the Nazi occupation was Korngold, "the greatest child prodigy in the history of music," in Cohen's estimation. Korngold found success in Hollywood as the father of the symphonic film score, scoring films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940) and Of Human Bondage (1946) and earning two Academy Awards for his efforts.

"His life was saved by Robin Hood," Cohen explains. "He was in America writing the film score for Robin Hood in 1938 when the Nazis came to his house in Vienna looking for him. He was out of the country, so he couldn't come back."

Korngold eventually did return to Austria in 1947, but his stellar reputation was all but forgotten, and he returned to America, where he died.

Europeans were not as easily deterred from the "degenerate" arts as the Nazis would have liked; in 1937, there was an art exhibition in Munich titled "Entartete Kunst" (or "Degenerate Art") that was enormously well attended. A year later, in Düsseldorf, an exhibition of "Entartete Musik" was staged with great success.

The composers that the Third Reich embraced were primarily Teutonic conservatives like Wagner and Pfitzner. The regime had a stark distaste for modernism or the avant-garde.

"People were bored with the terrible stuff the Nazis allowed," Cohen says.

Musica Nova is staging its performance of "Entartete Musik" at Temple Beth Israel in north Scottsdale, a conceptual touch that falls in perfect line with Cohen's philosophy.

"First, it's not just a concert," he explains. "We try to make it more of an event, create an atmosphere, so you get content and context. You've got the music and you try to create the context so that people understand it.

"If I go to a concert of contemporary music, I know the context, because that's where I live. I live in the contemporary world. If I go to hear a concert of 18th-century music, what's my context? What do I know? I'm in a different world. To make that music relevant, I try to give the people that context so the experience is meaningful to them."

The context for "Entartete Musik" expands beyond merely performing in a Jewish house of worship. Cohen will give a pre-concert talk, as well as explaining the situations of the various composers and telling accounts of the pieces' first performances, supplanted with posters from the era hung on the walls.

"I often feel that the reason people don't go to classical music concerts and don't like it is because they're either afraid or they don't understand it. I think if you're given a little guidance you can get past that and get into it and know where it's coming from. It's great stuff!" Cohen says with an excited laugh.

Cohen adopts his context and content theory to all of Musica Nova's performances. In a recent Fine Arts String Orchestra performance, he set up and conducted the musicians as he would have done 250 years ago.

"I played and conducted a Mozart piano concerto from the keyboard, which is the way Mozart would have done it instead of having a conductor," he says. "The stage was set up differently, with the musicians facing me -- not the traditional setup, but it would have been in an 18th-century concert."

Cohen founded Musica Nova to provide the northern part of the Valley with its own symphony orchestra, as well as to implement his linked ensemble formula. The Youth Orchestra Scottsdale and the Fine Arts String Orchestra will perform with the all-professional Musica Nova Orchestra once a year, at the culmination of the season, giving young and amateur musicians a chance to perform in a professional environment. The Youth and String orchestras also operate as feeder groups for Musica Nova and other professional music groups.

"My intent with Musica Nova is to reach out, and get people in there who don't know this stuff," Cohen explains.

Stirring local interest in compositions that Hitler himself tried to erase from an entire continent, it appears Cohen's mission is being accomplished.

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