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A Return of Wagner to Copley Hall : Symphony: Guest conductor to end Wagner drought, brought on by music director Yoav Talmi's scruples about performing works by the composer whose music and ideology was appropriated by the Nazis.

October 31, 1992|KENNETH HERMAN

SAN DIEGO — When guest conductor James Loughran leads the San Diego Symphony on Nov. 5-6 in Richard Wagner's Prelude and "Liebestod" from the opera "Tristan und Isolde," it will be the first Wagner that local subscription audiences have heard in years. Although Wagner has been performed during the symphony's recent summer seasons, the Wagner drought at Copley Symphony Hall stems from music director Yoav Talmi's scruples about performing the works by the composer whose music and ideology was appropriated by the Nazis.

"No one needs to convince me that Wagner was a great composer--one of the greatest," Talmi reflected in an interview earlier this month. "It has nothing to do with that. But he was a bastard as a human being. It was Toscanini who said 'I take my hat off to Wagner the composer, but as a human being, I put 10 hats on my head.' "

Even though the composer died long before Germany's National Socialists came to power, his name has been associated with Nazi infamy. Talmi recited the well-known list of Wagner's offenses: his virulently anti-Semitic writings, which the Nazis turned into sacred scripture, and the symbolic use of his music by the Third Reich. For these reasons, Wagner's music is not performed in Israel, even though noted conductors such as Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim in recent years have attempted to break the Israeli unofficial ban on Wagner.

As a youth growing up in Israel, Talmi heard first-hand accounts from an uncle who survived a Nazi concentration camp.

"My father's brother arrived in Israel years after the war was over. His wife and children had been killed in his sight. In Israel he remarried, and his second wife told me that 40 years after it was over, he still had nightmares. My uncle told me that every day, when they were going to forced labor work, marching out, coming in, on the loudspeakers there was music by Wagner. The most luxurious excerpts from Tannhauser--all those bombastic things just to glorify the Third Reich."

With the exception of Talmi's parents, who had emigrated to Palestine in 1936, and the one uncle, the conductor lost his entire family in the Holocaust. For the first 10 years of his conducting career, he even refused to accept any conducting engagements on German soil. He would not even agree to conduct a German orchestra until 1978, when the Munich Philharmonic was planning a tour that would bring them to the Netherlands, where Talmi was music director for the Gelders Orchestra in Arnhem. The Munich orchestra invited Talmi to conduct them, and to his surprise, he hit it off with the Munich musicians.

That initial collaboration led to Talmi's serving as the Munich Philharmonic's principal guest conductor from 1979-80 while the orchestra searched for a new director to replace the legendary Rudolf Kempe.

But until last summer, Talmi staunchly refused to conduct Wagner's music.

"Because (the Holocaust) touched me and my family so strongly, I have had something in my stomach for many years not to play Wagner, although I studied some Wagner in school. Every year, I decide this year I will do some Wagner. Finally, this summer--for the first time in my 24-year career--I conducted Wagner's 'Siegfried Idyll' with the Oslo Philharmonic."

Talmi has not yet scheduled himself to conduct a Wagner work with the San Diego Symphony, but he did not object when Loughran selected the Prelude and "Liebestod" for next week's subscription concert.

Ironically, Talmi does not object to conducting the works of Richard Strauss, even though Strauss lived through the Nazi period and collaborated with Hitler's government. In fact, Talmi has conducted Strauss with some frequency in San Diego. He noted, however, that Strauss was not a Nazi propagandist.

"He was just a person with weak judgment," Talmi said.

Ticket exchange. The San Diego Symphony will honor tickets held by patrons of the San Diego Foundation for the Performing Arts. Earlier this week, the foundation folded and canceled its five remaining dance programs. The symphony will exchange those ducats for any of the Encore or Ovation subscription series (of which there are 26 performances between now and next May) or any of the five holiday programs scheduled for Dec. 18-20. Exchanges may be made by mail or through the Copley Symphony Hall box office, and tickets will be exchanged on a space available basis.

"The San Diego Symphony has a deep concern for general arts audiences, and is committed to doing everything within its powers to see that foundation patrons receive value for the dollars they have spent in support of the arts in San Diego," said symphony executive director Wesley Brustad.

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