New Music for Strings
* Introduction and Fugue
* Shir Kinah (Elegy for Victims of Terrorism)
* Out of the Wilderness
* Theme Song
* String Quartet
Seattle Sinfonia/Joel Eric Suben
MSR Classics MSR1223 Total Time: 73.19
Summary for the Busy Executive: Bay mir bistu sheyn.
Mark Zuckerman studied with Milton Babbitt at Princeton and like
Babbitt (though unlike many of Babbitt's opponents) is happy with a
wide range of music. He's also worked as a commercial musician (sax,
keyboards, arranging), written on jazz, and founded (and composed for)
Di Goldene Keyt, a vocal ensemble specializing in Yiddish song. His
original composition, like Copland's, has two primary strains: easy
and hard. Certainly, almost all the music here, even the ambitious
music, aims at accessibility.
It's easier to write "profound" than "clear," just as you can indulge
in mind-altering drugs while participating in a bull session but not
while trying to say exactly what you mean. Successful commercial
musicians necessarily possess the virtue of clarity.
Of the "easy" pieces, Shpatsir and Theme Song, fare best. Shpatsir
(Yiddish for "stroll") reminds me a bit of Percy Grainger's Morris tunes,
with the same kind of sunny spring in its step. Theme Song arranges,
appropriately enough, the signature tune of Di Goldene Keyt, "Mir zaynen
do tsu zingen" (we're here to sing). I prefer Zuckerman's vocal
arrangement, but that may be because I heard it first.
Almost all of Zuckerman's program "comes off." I'd except only the
opening track, Introduction and Fugue. It's a piece intended for
amateur string players, and writing for amateurs provides composers
with their severest test. On the one hand, you can't indulge those
flights of fancy that call for (or can be covered by) advanced technique.
On the other, amateurs, particularly young ones, rank among the least
forgiving critics. They don't tolerate less than one's very best and
don't understand that one's very best isn't always possible. I suspect
there's a sports metaphor lurking beneath all this. After all, a home
run is a home run and a touchdown is a touchdown. In art, you run up
against nuances. At any rate, composers writing for amateurs must find
simple and inspiring ideas, perhaps the toughest job they can undertake.
Introduction and Fugue is simple without being particularly interesting.
Furthermore, it could have been written by a lot of people. One looks
in vain for a personality in this score. Happily, however, it's an
anomaly. "Facelessness" is rarely Zuckerman's problem.
The liner notes imply that all the other pieces are "atonal." They
certainly may be serial; I haven't checked a score and so don't really
know. Nevertheless, I hear tonality - ie, a sense of harmonic "home" -
in every single one of them. If you can take a piece like Copland's
Piano Variations or Bernstein's Halil, you should have few or no problems
with Zuckerman. Zuckerman's outstanding talent, apart from his craft,
is his original and incisive sense of melody. He comes up time and time
again with memorable gestures and ideas which can carry a listener through
a long, complex piece. Just as important, if this is indeed an atonal
score, he avoids the post-Wagnerian melodic cliches of atonal music.
Out of the Wilderness plays this up in spades - a suite of five movements
all based on one theme. Zuckerman likens the piece to a passacaglia.
Each movement also consists of the theme continually varied, and yet
Zuckerman never runs out of ways to grab us by our lapels. I particularly
enjoy his teasing diatonic harmonic implications from his chromatic
theme. Furthermore, Zuckerman labels individual variations within
movements according to how he regards their character. I don't agree
with most of his designations, but more significantly he writes the piece
not simply as a neat puzzle (although I happen to like puzzles), but as
something that works for emotional expression. In that, he succeeds.
Zuckerman transcribed the second movement of the String Quartet for
string orchestra and titled it Shir Kinah ("song of lament," or "elegy").
He composed it in 2006, in commemoration of the 9/11 massacres. Like
Barber's Adagio, it assumes a different character in a different medium.
I like the string orchestra version very much, but I miss the surrounding
context of the quartet. Normally, I'm not a fan of music or art inspired
by unfathomable horrors, but Zuckerman's elegy - to put it crudely -
works. Perhaps the distance of five years has helped make a difference.
The piece has humility and humanity both, a genuine empathy for lives
lost. I find it beautiful.
The String Quartet itself Zuckerman wrote for Milton Babbitt's 90th
birthday. At roughly 36 minutes, it's the longest and most ambitious
item on the program. It has four movements: Sonata; In Memoriam September
11, 2001; Scherzoid; Small Fugue. Again, I don't find it either atonal
or twelve-tone. To me it works like most modern pieces - high dissonance
but with an underlying tonality and a traditional phrasing, based on
song and dance. One holds onto an argumentative or narrative thread
rather than adjusts to stasis or isolated bursts. However, like the
Bartok quartets, it's hard to know. I've been listening for the past
week, and while the score made sense from the outset, I feel as if I
will discover a lot more as I continue to listen. "Scherzoid" is the
most digestible and the most fun. The "Small Fugue," despite its title,
takes up a third of the quartet. Zuckerman writes a piece so compelling,
however, that I want to listen to it again and again. Consequently,
rather than talk about things I don't yet understand, I want to leave
off here with a very strong recommendation.
The orchestral performances are acceptable. I wanted a stronger,
richer string sound than the Seattle Sinfonia gives me, but knowing
how much time is budgeted for most contemporary music, that's not really
surprising. Rhythm and attack are a bit loose, resulting in a slightly
laid-back vibe at odds with the intensity of Zuckerman's music. Joel
Suben never allows the narrative thread to fall, however, and gives you
an idea of the stature of most of these works. Both he and the Sinfonia
do better in Shir Kinah. The Momenta Quartet plays heroically in
Zuckerman's quartet, without quite getting its measure. How long the
players had to learn it, I have no idea, but I'd bet that a year from
now their interpretation will grow and mine the score more deeply.
Here's to hope and thanks to MSR for taking a chance.
Incidentally, Zuckerman's delightful arrangements of Yiddish tunes
performed by Di Goldene Keyt are available on The Year in Yiddish Song,
Centaur Records 2611.
[Online see: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/m/msr01223a.php]
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