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Michael Hurshell: ‘Completely normal, wonderful music’

Music lost, its composers once banned: On tour in Israel, the New Jewish Chamber Philharmonic Dresden is bringing forgotten music to the light of day. Its founder and conductor Michael Hurshell tells DW why.
During the 12-year Nazi dictatorship, Jewish musicians and composers lost their jobs, were driven into exile or murdered in concentration camps. In the aftermath, many such composers and their works fell into obscurity. The New Jewish Chamber Philharmonic Dresden’s agenda is to change that. Its repertory includes works by over two dozen forgotten or once-banned composers.

DW: Mr. Hurshell, how has your concert tour in Israel been?

Michael Hurshell: It’s wonderful to be here. Nazi cultural policy led to this music being forgotten all over the world, even in Israel. It’s very important for audiences to hear it again and to experience how wonderful and important it is.

What’s special about this repertory?

The Nazis prohibited performances of a number of works. Seeking to murder the composers, they didn’t want anyone to remember that this music once existed. Some composers died in the Holocaust. Others were forced to emigrate, their lives and careers destroyed. In consequence, much wonderful music has simply been forgotten, including works on our programs.

Nowadays, once-banned music is being revived on various stages throughout the world, works that haven’t been heard for 30, 40 or 50 years. On tour, we’re playing Miklos Rozsa’s “Andante.” We even gave its world premiere in Dresden in 2008.

Where do you find lost or forgotten musical works?

Some things – including several compositions by Erich Wolfgang Korngold – are collecting dust in publishers’ archives. Others I’ve discovered through networking. Friends in my home country, the US, have introduced me to composers’ families. Some own scores that are not to be found anywhere else.

That’s one source. Another is conductors in America who’ve at some point performed the repertory there. And of course I file through the archives of the publishing houses. Some of them don’t know that these composers have a Jewish background. I’m amazed sometimes to discover how famous they once were, in the 1920’s for instance. There are many broken threads in their life histories. You have to keep searching patiently.

How did the New Jewish Philharmonic come about?

In 2004 I led the Bratislava State Philharmonic at a concert in Saxony. To draw an audience, we were supposed to do something light, yet high-quality. So I opted for concert suites with film music from the 30s and 40s written by refugees from Europe. These composers are on our program today.

In the US, old films are always being shown on TV, and everybody knows the name Erich Wolfgang Korngold. With his renomee, he got his name onscreen, in big letters. None of the other composers had that status. But not even Korngold is all that well known in Germany, especially not in the states that comprise former East Germany. I thought: These composers studied in Leipzig, Berlin and Vienna – but why doesn’t anyone know them here?

I felt a need to do something about it, thought it over for three years and then decided to found the Chamber Phillharmonic in cooperation with the New Synagogue in Dresden as our home base so that audiences would know that our concerts have a somewhat different content.

What do you hope to achieve with your work?

A couple of years ago I saw one of “our” pieces on the playbill of a different chamber orchestra in Dresden. I was very gratified, because that’s precisely what I wish to achieve.

Every orchestra in Germany should come to perceive this music as completely normal and not just schedule it for concerts on historic anniversaries because someone has guilty feelings and thinks it will look good politically. One should play it out of conviction.

That will certainly take a few years, and whether I live to see the day is an open question. But our musicians spread the word. When they play for other conductors and concert organizers, they might say: “Look, we could play this kind of piece too!”

Topics: music

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