Judith Lang Zaimont
* Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening (excerpts) (1976)*
* A Woman of Valor (eshet hayil) (1977)**
* Parable: A Tale of Abram and Isaac (1986)^
* Meditations at the Time of the New Year (1997)^^
James Maddalena (baritone),*
Margaret Kohler (soprano),**
Frances Lucey (soprano),^
John Aler (tenor), ^
Randall Scarlata (baritone),^
Rabbi Rodney Mariner (speaker),^
Martha Cowan (soprano),^^
Kimball Wheeler (mezzo),^^
Harold Lester (harpsichord),^^
Ernst Senff Choir, Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin/Gerard Schwarz,*
Everest String Quartet/Samuel Adler,**
The Ruskin Ensemble, Laudibus Choir/Michael Brewer,^
Choral Society of Southern California/Nick Strimple^^
Naxos 8.559444 Total time: 66:12
Summary for the Busy Executive: Wonderful.
Despite her awards and many commissions, the music of Judith Lang Zaimont
has largely flown under the radar. I think this due largely to the lack
of recordings on widely-distributed labels. This Naxos release, part
of its Milken Archives series of American Jewish music, should do something
to correct the oversight. I hope only that it doesn't get lost in Naxos's
glut of releases, for it counts as one of the glories of the series.
Zaimont studied with Hugo Weisgall, Jack Beeson, Otto Luening, and Andre
Jolivet, which lets you in on how highly people regarded her potential
but gives you no clue as to what her music sounds like. From the little
I've read about her, she seems to be an artist with a mission. She knew
she was "born to be a composer" from about the age of eleven. To me,
this usually indicates someone with definite ideas of what sort of music
she wants to create. It's not a question of drifting into composition
or, like Mendelssohn perhaps, having composition a "natural" part of
oneself from the beginning. Certainly, Zaimont writes music of decided
individuality, within a largely traditionally tonal frame. In her
aesthetic, she shares more with composers before 1950 than after it.
But she doesn't write Nice Music, either, and she has a wide expressive
range. Not all her work addresses the empyrean. She has pieces that
she's written for fun, and more power to her.
All the works here, by the nature of the series, concentrate on one
aspect of Zaimont's output -- her inspiration from Jewish and Biblical
subjects. Each of these scores has meat, but the Sacred Service aims
the highest, it seems to me. Despite its title, strictly speaking it's
not a liturgical work, although Zaimont has adapted some of it for use
in a service. To a great extent, Zaimont treats her texts rather regally,
taking from here and there to fashion her libretto. All of it seems to
come from Reform, rather than Orthodox or Conservative, practice. Indeed,
that she writes for the Sabbath evening service (Friday night, rather
than Saturday morning) indicates Reform tradition. Almost every Jewish
composer working consciously as a Jew comes up against the towering
example of Ernest Bloch and makes a choice of following Bloch or trying
another path. In general, Zaimont follows Bloch in the distribution of
the music between a soloist (also a baritone) representing a cantor and
the chorus representing the congregation. Although Zaimont, like Bloch,
strikes an epic note, it's her own epic note.
It's all tonally-based. If I had to say whom she sounded like, I'd
name both Weisgall (in certain moments) and Jolivet. Her orchestration
in particular strikes me as very French. She builds firmly over larger
spans. Nothing meanders. All her lines give you the feeling that they
lead somewhere, and the destination, though unpredictable, seems right
once you arrive. She's not afraid of dissonance, but she's also not
shy about writing a good tune. Yet the tune is hardly ever the point
of her work. All the compositional elements - melody, harmony, rhythm,
color, and motific argument tend to find a hierarchical equilibrium.
For example, one of the numbers of the Sacred Service sets a widely-used
melody for the Sh'ma Yisrael -- the so-called Sulzer melody. This tune,
of stunning banality, drove me out of the temple faster than Jesus did
the money changers. Zaimont, however, somehow finds gold. This passage
reminds me of Bartok's transmutation of Hungarian folk music.
The choral writing throughout cannily mixes declamatory, homophonic
passages with simple, clear contrapuntal ones. Zaimont concerns herself
with making the text intelligible, even through large orchestral and
The solo writing, particularly the second section ("God and Father"),
reminds me a bit of Yardumian, although less static, more purposeful.
My favorite movement, the fourth ("Why do we deal treacherously"), sets
off squibs of stretti and jazzy syncopations in the chorus against the
soloist, who repeats the same tune throughout -- the "answer" to the
choral question: "Seek good, not evil, that ye may live." The movement
pays tribute to Zaimont's skill not only in marshalling all her forces,
but also in her handling of the solo repetition, which never sounds
merely repetitive. Rather, we get a drama between chorus and solo, with
the answer struggling for resolution and finally emerging from a choral
disintegration into whispers.
The singers of the Ernst Senff Choir handle their role adequately.
The English diction is a bit lazy, however, and this works to their
detriment in the quick third movement, where the rhythm becomes very
ragged indeed. No complaints about soloist Maddalena, and Schwarz
delivers an exciting performance that I think gets to the essence of the
work. He lets you know exactly how fine a piece it is. This leads to
my biggest complaint of all. The disc presents only six of Zaimont's
sixteen movements. On the one hand, I'm grateful for what I got, but
why did I get only that? Zaimont's service seems to me, considering
these excerpts, a major contribution not just to Jewish music, but to
20th-century choral music. It cries out for a complete recording.
A Woman of Valor, for string quartet and voice, strikes me as a lot
looser structurally. It has an introduction which features a minor third
as a kind of generating interval for the themes, but the piece as a whole
meanders somewhat. I feel a bit churlish for pointing this out, because
it is also very beautiful. Zaimont follows the turns of the text rather
than finds a musical structure for it. Still, each section sings. I
don't know why the looseness should bother me. After all, I adore Grieg.
My niggling might arise simply from the work's placement on the program.
The Sacred Service excerpts are a tough act to follow.
Zaimont takes a large artistic risk with Parable: A Tale of Abraham and
Isaac. She invites comparison to two masterpieces by Benjamin Britten.
The text combines the Brome mystery play of Abraham and Isaac, Wilfred
Owen's "Parable of the Old Man and the Young," and the kaddish, the
traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. Britten, of course, set part
of the mystery play in his Canticle II and the Owen in his War Requiem.
Why anyone would knowingly do this to themselves, I haven't a clue. But
Zaimont, to a very great extent, brings it off. Once again, the music
illuminates the text, and the juxtaposition of various texts deepen the
meaning of the central image. The mystery play takes Owen's "Abram,"
a symbol of dangerous self-righteousness, and gives him some humanity.
Abram sacrifices his son, but he doesn't feel good about it. Nevertheless,
the result is the same: "But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
/ And half the seed of Europe, one by one." At this moment, a narrator
recites the kaddish, presumably for Isaac, and the piece really takes
off. Normally, I can't tolerate melodrama (words spoken to music --
what's the point?). Here, it's beautiful and affecting. Perhaps the
ritual nature of the words removes the curse from the technique. We get
a benediction for the victim as we affirm the glory of God. Conceptually,
the work tugs at you several different ways. The performance counts
as my second-favorite on the CD. The choral work is more incisive, the
soloists as expressive as any (particularly baritone Randall Scarlata
as Abraham), and the ensemble crisp. Michael Brewer sorts out Zaimont's
occasionally busy textures beautifully.
With texts drawn from various sources, mainly associated with the
holiday Rosh Hashana, the Meditations at the Time of the New Year consists
of two sections. The first, "Dawn," paints a quietly ecstatic picture
of sunrise. The second, "Hope," begins with a bell-type tune and ends
in a quiet blessing. The piece is scored for chorus, tubular bells, and
glockenspiel. The percussion, delicately used, accents the choral music.
Indeed, the chorus bears the brunt of the work, and the Meditations give
us Zaimont's choral writing up close and personal. Zaimont makes no
concessions to performing ease. In fact, the interaction between
percussion and voices test almost cruelly the choir's ability to keep
pitch. But the music rewards the effort. Zaimont writes tonally, but
you really can't predict where she's going to end up harmonically. The
"surprise" chord is as much a feature of her work (although in a different
way) as it is in Faure's. I hear some similarity to Copland's a cappella
writing, but it's the resemblance between a child and great-grandfather.
Nick Strimple's Choral Society of Southern California gives a tremendous
choral performance, with crisp diction, the sense that they know what
they're singing about, and an heroic job of maintaining pitch.
I yield to no one in my admiration for Neil Levin's musicianship and
scholarship, but his liner notes are largely irrelevant to the music on
the CD. He's more interested in explaining Jewish theological concepts
than in dealing with the music itself. I suspect his remarks will
interest only a very few. Nevertheless, in all, a superb entry in Naxos's
American Jewish Music series.