Robert De Cormier
When the Rabbi Danced
* Songs of Jewish Life from the Shtetl to the Resistance
Counterpoint/Robert De Cormier.
Albany TROY676 Total time: 64:12
* The Year in Jewish Song
The Goldene Keyte Singers.
Centaur CRC 2611 Total time: 46:57
Summary for the Busy Executive: More from the world of Yiddish.
These two collections of choral arrangements of traditional songs aim
to present a rich picture of Yiddish culture. Both break down their
programs into the following categories: shtetl, songs of the villages
and ghettos of mainly eastern Europe; resistance, songs of Jewish anti-Nazi
partisans; songs of the concentration camps or songs arranged by composers
in those camps. Zuckerman adds a fifth category: Yiddish in America.
I come from a highly-assimilated generation. I know very little Yiddish
(and less Hebrew). I can't even speak a complete Yiddish sentence,
unless I'm quoting somebody. Even then, I probably get it wrong. I'm
told that Yiddish enjoys somewhat of a revival among those who never
spoke it "naturally," but I've not met these people. Certainly, the
state of the language hasn't risen to its previous peak, when a landsman
could have his pick of daily newspapers, browse through and buy novels
and poetry collections from a bookstore, go to the theater, buy pop
records, even see a movie, all in Yiddish.
Robert De Cormier has enjoyed a long career as a choral conductor and
prolific arranger. He's been music director to such well-knowns as
Belafonte and Peter, Paul, and Mary. He's also worked with Jessye Norman,
Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, James Levine, and Andre Previn. As an
arranger, he's been drawn to the folk side of things, and an American choral
singer has likely done at least a couple of his works. Counterpoint
consists of eleven professional singers. Their tone is fine, but nothing
special. For some numbers, instrumentalists join them. De Cormier's
instrumental arrangements really don't add much, if anything. They remind
me a bit of Fred Hellerman's arrangements for Theo Bikel -- something for an
"easy listening" market. I greatly preferred the a cappella items.
However, the CD also includes arrangements by Viktor Ullmann and Gideon
Klein, both Jewish composers interred at Terezin and killed in the camps.
These lift a good program to a great one. Ullmann, in particular, likes to
weave in canonic textures with traditional melodies, much like Schoenberg's
Mark Zuckerman studied with Milton Babbit, among others. His
music alternates between the thorny and the accessible. However, his
accessibility comes without patronization or compromise. The program
here is wonderful stuff, all Zuckerman arrangements or even originals.
The difference between De Cormier and Zuckerman is the difference between
a good arranger and a very good composer. De Cormier tends to bury his
personality in service of the tune. Zuckerman plays with the tune, and
brilliantly. In addition to the pure melody and lyric, there's always
something musically interesting going on to hook you. For example,
Sholom Secunda -- the Yiddish theater's answer to Broadway's Irving
Berlin -- is represented by his cross-over hit "Bay mir bistu sheyn."
Zuckerman first gives us something close to what might have been heard
in Yiddish circles and then launches into a luminous choral evocation
of swing. Other out-of-the-ordinary cuts are "In kamf," from the
American labor movement, sung at Jewish May Day rallies, and Berl Lapin's
(1889-1952)Yiddish rendition of "America the Beautiful" ("Amerike di
prekhtike"), an example of the new immigrants striving to become "real
Americans." The Goldene Keyt ("golden chain") Singers number four, and
I doubt they're all Jewish, especially Mary Ellen Callahan and Hsi-Ling
Chang, though you never know. At any rate, their Yiddish is far better
than mine. It's harder to sing with three other singers than with eight
others, because any little mistake you make stands out like a boil on
your nose. The Goldene Keyt (named after the literary journal?) display
the highest degree of musicianship, although their tone, like that of
Counterpoint, isn't really special. Nevertheless, I enjoyed them far
more, especially their intonation and their rhythmic snap.
I recommend both discs -- the De Cormier for the a cappella arrangements,
the Zuckerman for all the arrangements and for the singers.