Milken Archive - Jewish Tone Poems / Schwarz, Levi, Et Al

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On this release, titled “Jewish Tone Poems,” we have three works from three composers with very different backgrounds and from three different periods. The oldest is Aaron Avshalomov (1894–1964) who was born in eastern Siberia, and following the 1917 Russian revolution was sent by his parents to the US via Manchuria and northern China. After marrying a Russian émigré in San Francisco and spending three years in Portland, Oregon, he returned to China, settling among the large Jewish community in Shanghai. During the Second World War, he was forced to live under house arrest, but after the war, he followed his son Jacob (also a distinguished composer) to the US, this time remaining permanently. As a composer, Avshalomov, the elder, was largely self-taught. His Second Symphony (1949) was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky. The booklet note to the four Biblical Tableaux is provided by Avshalomov’s son. With this work we have once again what basically amounts to a four-movement symphony (though a short one), each of its movements provided with a title that references a Biblical story: “Queen Esther’s Prayer” (from the Book of Esther read on the Jewish festival of Purim); “Rebecca by the Well”; “Ruth and Naomi” (from the Book of Ruth read on the holiday of Shavuot); and “Processional.” I think each of these pieces were correctly titled “tableaux” by the composer, since none is long enough or developed in a way that informs our understanding of tone poem. Each is a brief (the longest lasting only four minutes) orchestral sketch in a very attractive Romantic idiom. Given that Avshalomov was born in the waning years of the 19th century, and that he received little or no formal musical training, the conservative and largely derivative idiom comes as no surprise.

Sheila Silver (b. 1946) is a Seattle native, and a graduate of University of California Berkeley. Her Shirat Sara (“Song of Sarah”) is also not really a tone poem, or even three tone poems (à la Debussy’s Nocturnes), but a formal three-movement symphony for string orchestra. It was written in 1985, and like much post-modernist music, especially by American composers (though much of the work was written during Silver’s stay in Israel), it is at its core a very ripe, rich, Romantic piece disguised, if you will, by an overlay of 20th-century devices and techniques. I am not ashamed to admit that I love this kind of music. It is beautiful, and that gives me confidence that contemporary composers have not forgotten how to write works that are accessible and appealing, without pandering to commercial kitsch. I’d like to hear more of Silver’s music, for Shirat Sara is technically impressive and emotionally moving, fixed in much the same orbit as that of Daniel Asia (also Seattle born and Jewish—I wonder if a recording of his Breath in a Ram’s Horn will be among future offerings).

Jan Meyerowitz (1915–98) falls musically somewhere in between Avshalomov and Silver. He was born Hans Hermann in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw in Poland). His parents converted to Christianity before he was born, and he didn’t even know of his Jewish roots until he was eighteen. He comes with imposing credentials, studying first with Zemlinsky, and then following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, traveling to Rome where he continued his studies with Respighi and Casella. When the war broke out, he fled first to Belgium, then to southern France, where he was hidden from the Germans by the French singer Marguerite Fricker, whom he subsequently married. Following France’s liberation in 1944, Meyerowitz’s compositions were performed on radio and in concert by such distinguished artists as Jean-Pierre Rampal and Yvonne Loriod. In 1946, Meyerowitz came to the US, where he distinguished himself as a composer of opera, choral, and vocal works, though his catalog also includes a flute concerto, a string quartet, and miscellaneous orchestral and chamber works.

The piece heard here is a symphony in four movements, titled Midrash Esther (1954). It traces in purely orchestral music the festival of Purim story, which tells the tale of the not-terribly-bright Persian king, Ahasuerus, his evil, manipulative court advisor Haman, the beautiful Queen Esther, and Mordechai, Esther’s older cousin. The story, by turns uproariously funny and deadly serious, opens with the king’s wife, Vashti, refusing to do her wifely duties when summoned by Ahasuerus. He is advised to have her publicly executed, so that she should serve as an example to all the married women in the kingdom of what will happen to them if they deny their husbands sex. Ahasuerus, being the Mensa mensch he is, orders Vashti beheaded. Now, he has to find a new wife. All of the young and most beautiful maidens of the kingdom are paraded before him, and from among all of them, whom does he pick? A Jewess, Esther, orphaned cousin of Mordechai. She has no choice but to marry the king. Meanwhile, Haman not only resents Esther because of her Jewish ancestry, but he is further enraged by Mordechai, because the Jew sits at the palace gate and refuses to bow down before him. So, Haman hatches a plot to have all of the Jews of the kingdom exterminated, and persuades the besotted Ahasuerus to sign the decree. Ahasuerus is presently unaware of the fact that his beloved bride Esther is herself a Jewess and among those Haman plans to have killed. Mordechai gets wind of the plot and goes into action, imploring his cousin Esther to intercede with the king. Esther is at first reluctant, for approaching the king unbidden is punishable by death. But Mordechai excoriates her, telling her that her marriage to the king may have been part of God’s own plan to save the Jews, and that if she refuses to intervene, God will find another way, while she will perish. Talk about laying on the Jewish guilt. So Esther gathers up her courage and approaches the king, who is in a receptive mood. She invites him and Haman to a banquet, at which Haman’s evil plot is exposed in front of the king. All ends well, except for Haman and his henchman, who are hanged on the very gallows they had erected for the Jews. Meyerowitz’s score is alternately bold, dramatic, caressingly beautiful in its depiction of Esther, and sweepingly cinematic. Once again, like a number of the other works on these four CDs, the music is post-Romantic in style and gesture, but with enough modern devices and techniques thrown in to identify the piece as mid 20th century, and it is masterfully orchestrated.

Jerry Dubins, FANFARE

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Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559426

  • UPC: 636943942628

  • Label: Milken Archive