ADLER: Five Sephardic Choruses. Nuptial Scene. The Binding (excerpt). El Melekh Yoshev. Ahavat Olam. Sim Shalom. Bar'khu. Sh'ma Yisra'el. V'ahavta and Mi Khamokha. Hashkivenu. Symphony No. 5 "We Are the Echoes."
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano; Mary Ellen Callahan, soprano; Helen Kruszewski, soprano; Freda Herseth, soprano; Margaret Bishop Kohler, mezzo; Heather Johnson, mezzo; Roslyn Jhunever Barak, cantor; Richard Botton, cantor; Alberto Mizrahi, cantor; Matthew Kirchner, tenor; Joseph Evans, tenor; Gideon Dabi, tenor; Ted Christopher, baritone; Raphael Frieder, baritone; Barbara Harbach, organ; Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir/Patrick Gardner; Eastman Players, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rochester Singers, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Samuel Adler, cond.
NAXOS 8.559415 (B) {DDD} TT: 70:39
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Born in Germany, Samuel (born "Hans") Adler fled with his family in 1938 to the U.S. His father was a cantor, as was Kurt Weill's. Adler studied with Copland and Piston, among others. Although he has work in all genres, he has written an extensive body of liturgical work and of work inspired by Jewish themes. In fact, my home temple commissioned a service from him. Since I hadn't been inside the place for at least ten years before the premiere, I missed it. Anyway, My Brush with Greatness.

Although not exactly a household name, Adler has enjoyed a very active career, with steady commissions from first-rank groups. His energy is prodigious. He has started and run musical programs and ensembles, written books and articles, and taught throughout his professional life. His musical idiom ranges from neoclassic tonal to dodecaphonic. He does have a good sense of occasion, as shown by the fact that the music for liturgical use is singable, even hummable. He reserves the knottier stuff for professional executants.

The program breaks in that way here. I admit I preferred the liturgical music and the Five Sephardic Choruses above the rest. I also enjoyed Nuptial Scene -- a kind of psychological monologue of a mother giving her daughter advice on the occasion of her wedding -- but it's not the sort of thing you go out humming, exactly. Nevertheless, it's very acute; the music captures a wide and subtle range of mood.

The excerpt from The Binding (about Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac) and the symphony, the most ambitious items on the program, seem to me to suffer from the same problems. I can't call either one of them badly-written, but that's the best I can say. The Binding suffers from a kind of "facelessness." I can't distinguish it from the music of a lot of other people -- a generic International Beige piece. The symphony I like a little better. It's a work that wants to understand the ways of God toward the Jews. If God exists, why have the Jews suffered? The texts are mainly very well selected. I particularly admired Adler's choice of a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. However, the "vocal symphony" is a difficult genre to bring off in general. In this case, I found myself far more interested in the instrumental sections than in the vocal ones. The instrumental sections make the strongest lasting impact. Indeed, the vocal parts seemed to get in the way of whatever musical momentum Adler had generated. Furthermore, the music isn't particularly melodically memorable, death in a vocal work. The singer seems to jump around like a flea on a hot skillet, to very little purpose other than to get through the text. Adler seems to resort to all-recitative, all the time. I don't blame the problem on dodecaphony, since I've heard impressive, even hummable twelve-tone vocal music. Here, however, the singer just meanders.

Adler can't blame his executants, all of whom do excellent work. Soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson heroically negotiates the symphony with grace and style. Cantor Rosalyn Jhunever Barak has an exquisite voice and, unlike many cantors, knows how to use it without hoking it up. Mezzo Margaret Bishop Kohler delivers a penetrating performance in Nuptial Scene. The choruses -- the Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and the Rochester Singers -- go beyond technique and sing with insight. Adler himself acts as his own persuasive advocate with a variety of groups. Based on this CD, he's a more than competent conductor.

The sound is fine, but not spectacular.

S.G.S. (October 2004)