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CLASSICAL  May 2008

CLASSICAL May 2008

Subject:

Amram - Judaica

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Thu, 22 May 2008 19:04:23 -0700

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text/plain

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David Amram
Orchestral Music

*  Symphony - Songs of the Soul (1987)1
*  Shir L'erev Shabbat (excerpts) (1965)2
*  The Final Ingredient (excerpts) (1966) 3

1Berlin Radio Symphony/Christopher Wilkins
2Richard Troxell, tenor
1Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ
2BBC Singers/Kenneth Kiesler
3Soloists, University of Michigan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Kenneth Kiesler
Naxos 8.559420 Total time: 63:12

Summary for the Busy Executive: Feelin' genuinely groovy.

David Amram came up into brief prominence during the Fifties and
Sixties and, I believe, deserved it. The music, fresh and substantive,
also struck me as far more representative of the culture at large than
the music of those who claimed to write "the music of our time" - mainly,
the "hard" wing of contemporary music, neo-Webernian serialists and
the like.  While the latter continue to survive, mainly within grant
organizations and the academy, figures like Amram and Schickele -
quintessentially of the Sixties - can validly claim descendents in
such figures as Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, and John Adams.

Amram's music swam in currents outside the usual musical streams.  To
the tonal-atonal debate, he was, though tonal, largely irrelevant.  Like
Leonard Bernstein, a musical omnivore, he worked with (not necessarily
in the same piece) bop and post-bop jazz, vernacular American music,
folk music from just about every corner of the world, all allied to a
Stravinskian base.  Everyone thinks of the Sixties, folk music, and acid
rock, but - take it from somebody who lived through it - it was more of
a cultural smorgasbord.  One could take bits of this and that.  In a
typical LP collection of the period, for example, one could find Woody
Guthrie, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles,
Jefferson Airplane, Gregorian chant, Vaughan Williams, Jonathan Winters,
Bach's Brandenburgs and Goldbergs, Balinese gamelan, Stravinsky's early
ballets, and Renaissance choral music, both secular and sacred.  Amram's
music resembles that record collection.  I believe he writes music that
interests him, and he happens to have very wide interests.  A good story:
When the first ship bearing officially-sanctioned U.  S.  travelers
pulled into Havana, Amram greeted them from the dock, playing flute with
some local musicians.

Amram hooked me with a violin sonata and his Sabbath Service, neither
of which, I believe, have received complete recordings.  I caught them
in a documentary on the composer, broadcast by something called "educational
television" 'way back when.  This sent me looking for other pieces.  I've
kept up with Amram.  At one point, I even spent a very boring day with
him.  He was watching the fights; I needed an interview for the local
paper.  At one point, he rattled off some windbaggy garbage on the art
of music, so I wrote an article which simply described that day (I'm
told he hated the article, particularly when I compared him to my ancient
father, but Amram was gracious about it).  Anyway, I kept up with the
music, if not with the composer.  I even attended live performances of
his jazz quintet and trio.  Amram seems to write a lot, although you'd
never know it from the few recordings he's received.  At least one
Shakespearean opera probably still lies around in manuscript.  Some of
his output strikes me as rather bland and not entirely free of the charge
of Trendy.  His scores based on American Indian music, for example, have
pretty much bored me.  On the other hand, there's great energy and wit
in his Triple Concerto, Wind Quintet, and Shakespearian Concerto, as
well as power in his King Lear Variations and Elegy for Violin and
Orchestra.

This CD, part of the Milken Archives series on American Jewish music,
focuses on Amram's "Jewish" works - early on, at any rate, a significant
thread in his catalogue.

The most recent work on the program, the "Songs of the Soul" Symphony,
although it takes its inspiration from Jewish sources, to me stands apart
from his "Jewish" scores of forty to fifty years ago, both in intent and
quality.  Those earlier scores expressed not merely Judaism in the
abstract, but something extremely personal.  They allowed Amram to dig
down into his soul, to speak with the voice of a prophet.  Here, Judaism
seems like just another stop on the cruise ship, a Jewish Escales, if
you will.  In three movements, we get the music of Jews in Ethiopia,
Hassids in Central Europe, and, in the final movement, Yemen, the
Mediterranean, and again Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.  It's a
pretty score, but one I find curiously empty. I recognize Amram's "we
are the world" impulse behind it, but I simply don't care.

To feel the considerable difference between the symphony and Amram at
his best, listen to the Shir L'erev Shabbat, known better in English
as the Sabbath Evening Service.  I say this as an insider: most Jewish
liturgical music, outside of the traditional cantorial chants and excepting
such composers as Bloch and Bernstein, is bloody awful.  Indeed, It may
well be one of the main reasons why I haven't set foot inside a temple
in forty years.  Several noble efforts have been made, notably the
so-called Putterman commissions of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York,
to provide high-quality liturgical music from real, as opposed to church,
composers.  Those lucky enough to have received the award include Weill,
Milhaud, Wolpe, Starer, Foss, Sowerby, and Diamond.  Schoenberg, Bloch,
and Stravinsky turned down the commission, as did Barber, Piston,
Hindemith, and Schuman, among others.  Amram completed his service in
1961 and premiered it the same year.  As far as I know, a lot of really
good music resulted from the series, and almost none of it is used.
Amram made an eminently practical work: small forces playing music,
though challenging, well within the capabilities of a "church choir."
That Amram should also have also come up with a very beautiful work,
whose interest doesn't dim with repetition, is in itself a minor miracle.

After all, "Jewish" concert music is a modern intellectual construct.
The music of the Russian Orthodox church spawned some of it (especially
its treatment of choral forces; traditional Jewish music doesn't include
choirs), but its major source is probably Ernest Bloch and the Avodath
Hakodesh, or Sacred Service.  To appreciate Bloch's achievement, just
compare Max Bruch's Kol Nidre with Bloch's Schelomo.  Bloch's influence
has been both constricting and liberating, tempting many to naked imitation
and inspiring others to find themselves in old traditions.  Dessau,
Weill, Wolpe, Bernstein, Foss, Schoenberg, Milhaud, and Amram fall into
the latter group.  Amram handles an epic voice in a small space. For me,
the main source of its beauty lies in the harmonies, gorgeous and
unpredictable and fully expressive of the text.  Someone really ought
to record the whole thing.  For that matter, Amram should orchestrate
it.

I actually saw the ABC broadcast of Amram's opera The Final Ingredient
in 1965.  Though short, it's a wonderful opera - I think one of the best
of the postwar period, although in very conservative idiom.  Arnold
Weinstein created the libretto from, I believe, a TV play by Reginald
Rose, one of the leading lights of the so-called Golden Age of Television.
Best known as William Bolcom's collaborator and a terrific poet, Weinstein
wrote Bolcom's Dynamite Tonight!  and Cabaret Songs.  The Final Ingredient
concerns Jewish concentration-camp prisoners who decide to secretly hold
the ritual Passover meal, the seder, and begin to assemble the "ingredients."
On the list is an egg, symbol of life.  A bird's nest has been spotted
just outside the fence, and one of their number, a non-believing Jew,
is finally persuaded to get the egg.  He is killed by the guards as he
returns, but he does manage to deliver the egg.  There's a horrible irony
here, but also a great hope.  I'm normally quite dry-eyed in the presence
of most Holocaust works, because - despite, I'm sure, the authors' intent
- the art falls far short of the history.  Not here.  The opera at times
is so beautiful, your heart breaks, and the CD has some of the best
scenes: the women prisoners singing the "songs of Zion" in a strange
land; the celebration of the seder and the finale.  Again, much of the
charge of the music comes from Amram's choral writing.  He really ought
to do more of it.

The performances range from the good to the exceptional.  I'm not sure
whether any performance could imbue the symphony with substance, but
the Sabbath Evening Service shines under Kiesler, the BBC Singers,
Bowers-Broadbent, and Troxler taking on the cantor part.  The opera is
to a great extent carried on by students, but you'd never know it.  They
sound good and, even more important, they can act.  All in all, recommended.

Steve Schwartz

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