ADOLPHE: Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering. Ludy Shelton, soprano;
Eliot Fisk, guitar; David Jolley, French horn). Mikhoels the Wise (excerpt
from Act I). (Erie Mills, soprano; Nathaniel Watson, baritone; Seattle
Symphony Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.). Out of the Whirlwind.(John Aler,
tenor; Phyllis Pancella, mezzo-soprano; College-Conservatory of Music
/Rodney Winther, cond.
NAXOS 8.559413 (B) (DDD) TT: 75:04
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I first encountered the music of Bruce Adolphe with a piece for winds,
the Night Journey. It seemed to me pretty and imaginative,
so I had nothing but good feeling as I prepared to listen to this CD.
This time out, Adolphe's music disappointed me.
The Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering take some
lyric gems, poetry of Spanish Jews and gives them to the unusual combination
of guitar, French horn, and soprano. As an exercise in sonority, it's
fairly intriguing, and moreover Adolphe brings it off. The actual musical
substance constitutes the main hurdle for me. It's almost entirely
what I would consider recitative, no different and no worse than lots
Modern writing in this vein. But there's nothing truly memorable (other
than the instrumental combination) either - nothing that enhances the
wonderful poems Adolphe has chosen to set. I don't really expect "Notre
Amour," but I'd like something less superfluous than what the composer
has given me.
The opera Mikhoels the Wise tells the story of Solomon Mikhoels,
the great Soviet Jewish actor (and the father-in-law of the Polish-Russian
composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg [Moisei Vainberg]), undoubtedly the most
influential Jewish cultural figure during the Stalin years. Mikhoels
was murdered by the secret police during one of the Anti-Semitic purges
of Stalin's final years. The scene takes place in a special Siberian
enclave set up for Jews by Stalin as the Soviet alternative to Zionism.
Most of it consists of a dialogue between Mikhoels and Sin-Cha, a Soviet-Korean
woman who has fled her own country to the "protectorate." Sin-Cha
wants the visiting Mikhoels to emigrate permanently. Mikhoels gives
her all sorts of reasons why he won't - from joking to serious - the
compelling being his conviction that he can do more for Soviet Jewry
in Moscow, that the Socialism in which he has put his trust is larger
than a small enclave, and that he has no desire to exile himself in
his own country. Given the circumstances of Mikhoels's life, the argument
becomes ironically poignant. In effect, he heads for an unavoidable
no matter what action he takes. But the emotion is all in the libretto.
The music doesn't stick with you, despite the composer's best intentions.
Alone on-stage, Sin-Cha sings a lullaby for Mikhoels and, by implication,
European Jewry - obviously a set piece which, by its placement at the
end of the scene, should ratchet up the emotional level. Again, the
music doesn't deliver.
I liked best the sequence Out of the Whirlwind, settings of Holocaust
poetry. Here, the music, rather than the text alone, does the emotional
work of moving the listener. However, there's nothing that distinguishes
the music from that of fifty other composers. One gets the feeling
of a piece well-written, sincerely felt, but not entirely the composer's
Adolphe is mostly lucky in his performers. Lucy Shelton in the Ladino songs indulges her annoying habit of singing as if through a mouthful
of hot porridge. I often couldn't understand what on earth she was
singing about, with translations of the texts in front of me. But this
only bump in the road. Guitarist Eliot Fisk and David Jolley on the
horn lend sensitive support and bring off the tricky instrumental combination,
convincing you that it amounts to more than a stunt. John Aler does
as Mikhoels, Erie Mills outstandingly well as Sin-Cha. Both can act
with their voices. They give their scene dramatic point. Schwarz and
do what they can with an often dull score (as in timbre, rather than
interest, although the sound undoubtedly relates to the interest).
The best instrumental work comes from the College-Conservatory of Music
Symphony led by Rodney Winther. They get sparks to fly.
S.G.S. (April 2004)