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CLASSICAL  October 2006

CLASSICAL October 2006

Subject:

Early Celebration

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 23 Oct 2006 10:22:51 -0500

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     "In Celebration of Israel"

*  Weill: Hatikva
*  Chajes:
     - Old Jerusalem
     - Hebrew Suite
     - Adarim
*  Fromm:
     - Pioneers
     - Yemenite Cycle
*  Helfman: Israel Suite
*  Scharf: The Palestine Suite
*  Secunda: Yom b'kibbutz

Barcelona Symphony/National Orchestra of Catalonia/Karl Anton Rickenbacher,
Elli Jaffe, Jorge Mester
Ana Maria Martinez (soprano); Slovak Radio Symphony/Samuel Adler
Vienna Boys' Choir; Martin Scherbesta (piano); Vienna Chamber
Orchestra/Gerald Wirth
Margaret Kohler (mezzo); Eastman Players/Samuel Adler; RSO Berlin/Gerard
Schwarz.
Naxos 8.559461 Total time: 66:00

Summary for the Busy Executive: A burst of optimism.

The years 1947-48 and the establishment of the state of Israel seemed
to promise so much.  It stirred Jews around the world, and not just
Zionists.  Indeed, some of the composers on this album -- like Kurt Weill
-- were secular liberals, rather than Zionist Jews.  Nevertheless, they
all had at least one hope in common.  Here at last, we thought, was the
one place on earth where Jews would be safe, the always-open safe haven
from the miseries and injustices of the rest of the world.  As we know
now, it didn't work out that way, but that was the hope.  This entry in
Naxos's Milken Archive series of American Jewish Music is titled "In
Celebration of Israel." The works here bear testimony to the buoyancy
and the dreams, rather than to the dangerous reality.

As in most collections, the items vary in quality.  The Weill arrangement
of Hatikva, which became the Israeli national anthem, though only two
minutes long, resembles less an arrangement as such than a composition
on a theme.  The rhetorical form, however, is a strange one -- neither
overture nor quasi-sonata nor anything standard.  It lies closest to a
"cue" of incidental music.  A strong, dramatic, narrative thread runs
through it, as if the music accompanied some stage or movie action --
"The Tanks Roll Forward," for example.  Despite its brevity, it obviously
comes from a master composer.

Julius Chajes, pianist and composer, spent two years in Palestine in
the mid-Thirties.  If we judge by the works here, his style didn't change
all that much, deriving essentially from Ernest Bloch.  However, Chajes
differs from Bloch in roughly the same way as Rodrigo differs from Falla.
While each has his virtues, the source works on a greater scale than
does the disciple.  The Chajes works come from 1939 and 1974, and I doubt
whether anyone could tell which came first.  Still, they are very well
done, convincing on their own.  You don't need the source to appreciate
them for themselves.  The songs -- "Old Jerusalem" and "Adarim" -- are
beautiful, with a touch of Middle-East melismata.  The Hebrew Suite comes
out of Chajes's Palestine period, a combination of travelogue and, here
and there, philosophic meditation.

Like Weill and Chajes, Herbert Fromm fled Europe after the Nazis came
to power and finally settled in the United States.  He studied with,
among others, Hindemith.  He doesn't sound much like Hindemith, however,
except in the clarity of his best ideas.  The CD shows Fromm at both his
best and less than that.  Pioneers, written for Arthur Fiedler in 1971,
amounts to little more than a bit of propagandistic toffee.  The chamber
Yemenite Cycle, however, written in 1960 after Fromm's first visit to
Israel, runs in a much higher gear.  The music is downright elegant,
with hardly a wasted note, and the variety of sound from a limited number
of instruments wins my admiration.  The basic material lies closer to
folk sources than Fromm's wont, with Yemenite and even European Hassidic
turns of phrase coming into play.  The technical sophistication of Fromm's
treatment mirrors a similar philosophic sophistication.  One feels that
Fromm tries to absorb the larger, extra-musical significance of his
immediate inspiration, even though the composer avoids any sort of
emotional heavy-handedness.

Max Helfman, though born in Poland, came to the United States early
in the century.  Largely self-taught as a composer, he became involved
in leftist Jewish circles, notably in the labor movement and later in
"heritage" education for Jewish youth.  He became far more than a musical
figure for American Jews.  Even I, only minimally interested in Judaism
either as a religion or as a culture, felt some of his influence in the
Fifties, having sung, with my fellow Sabbath-school inmates, a few of
his songs.  Like the British Ivor Gurney, Helfman wrote a music a bit
rough around the edges -- possibly due to his lack of formal study --
but with a core of tremendous integrity.  The Israel Suite, a collection
of songs for children's chorus and two pianos (here orchestrated by
Charles Davidson, a Helfman student), comes from 1949.  The tunes are
by others, as is the case with Copland's Old American Songs, but, like
Copland, Helfman has fashioned complex, yet highly singable compositions
of his own.  The texts run in the vein of early 20th-century Jewish
Socialism -- a Thirties poem about five Jewish kibbutz workers murdered
by Arabs (the bad blood between Arab and Jew in Palestine predates the
founding of Israel by at least twenty years), others about the beauty
of the land, a finale celebrating the establishment of Israel.  Of all
the works on the program, I like this the best for its consistently high
level of inspiration and its ability to galvanize the listener.

Walter Scharf began orchestrating on Broadway during the Thirties,
most notably for Gershwin's Girl Crazy.  Later, he had a nice career
in Hollywood, working mainly as a musical director on such films as Hans
Christian Andersen and Funny Girl.  Like Herbert Stothart in Wizard of
Oz, he worked primarily at providing decent underscoring, the musical
tissue underpinning scenes and transitions, rather than the songs that
made these movies matter.  (It's always been a sore point with me that
Stothart got the Oscar for the Wizard of Oz score and Arlen and Harburg
got only Best Song).  Scharf was a fine craftsman, but not necessarily
a great artist.  Inspired by the death of his grandmother, The Palestine
Suite dates from the early Forties.  Musically, it's fairly much what
you might expect: a Forties movie score with few memorable moments,
prettily orchestrated.  I can't muster much enthusiasm for it myself,
but I should mention that Stokowski liked it enough to conduct it.

One of the prodigiously gifted American songwriters and an icon of the
Yiddish musical, Sholem Secunda studied at (what became) Juilliard and,
briefly, with Ernest Bloch.  He knew far more than he needed to write a
musical.  He also composed liturgical music, arranged for Richard Tucker's
cantorial albums, and tried classical forms, including a violin concerto
and a string quartet.  He wanted to be known as a classical composer,
but his mega-hit "Bay mir bistu sheyn" has probably put paid to those
hopes.  I must confess I prefer the "popular" Secunda myself.  Yom
b'kibbutz (a day on the kibbutz) actually combines Secunda's popular and
classical leanings, since the material comes from the composer's 1952
musical Uncle Sam in Israel.  The themes have a demotic energy, although
the symphonic treatment is rather tame.  Even more than Scharf's Palestine
Suite, Secunda's little tone poem sounds like Forties movie music (the
composer tried and failed to land a Hollywood gig, possibly because the
Jewish studio heads perceived him as "too Jewish").  At any rate, the
tone poem made me want to hear the musical, especially with the original
cast, which included the wonderful Fyvish Finkel.  Maybe a recording
lurks in someone's vault.

The performances are nothing less than good, and Samuel Adler, Margaret
Kohler, and the Eastman Players do a sensitive, refined job with Fromm's
Yemenite Cycle.  Helfman's Israel Suite takes the palm for the liveliest
performance, with what sounds like genuine enthusiasm coming from the
Vienna Boys' Choir and animated direction from Gerald Wirth.

Steve Schwartz

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