A. AVSHALOMOV: 4 Biblical Tableaux (1928). SILVER: Shirat Sara (1985). MEYEROWITZ: Symphony Midrash Esther (1954).
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz, Yoel Levi; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz.
Naxos 8.559426 (B) {DDD} TT: 63:19

Off the beaten path. Naxos once again explores byways unknown to most of us in its by-now extensive American Jewish Music series of performances from the Milken Archives. I had heard music only by Avshalomov previously, and I didn't particularly care for it. This I liked a lot better.
I should say while I consider all the composers capable, even quite fine, most aren't masters in the sense of people like Bartók, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, or Hindemith. They don't write, strictly speaking, necessary music. The question, of course, comes down to whether art must be necessary in order to claim one's attention or even love. We've all met people who listen only to indisputably great works, with the rest not worth their time. I don't necessarily quarrel with this, except to say that such a listening strategy doesn't work for me. I don't live on an exalted plane all the time, just as I don't live in a neighborhood of architectural masterpieces. I want to know as much of a landscape as I can. Even a city as great and beautiful as Paris wouldn't inspire love if it were unrelentingly perfect or grand. All those palaces need the balance of thousands of modest apartments, boulangeries, and bistros. Furthermore, I need to feel, more often than I care to admit, that I've stolen a moment here and there to waste.

I always associate Aaron Avshalomov with the Pacific Northwest, although he had an unusually cosmopolitan career. The same goes for his son, Jacob, whom I find the more interesting composer. However, both stand in the enormous shade of Ernest Bloch (whom they both knew), as did many self-consciously Jewish composers of the first half of the century. Father Aaron took from the "Jewish," rhapsodic style of Bloch's Schelomo, while son Jacob tended to follow the "neoclassical" Bloch, from a piece like the Sinfonia Breve. Although both men have something of their own to say, they don't say it as compellingly as Bloch. In high school, I went crazy for Bloch's music -- a fascination that has never left me -- and I thought that with a little training, I could write Blochian pieces as well as Bloch himself. Thank God those pieces never got written. I would have become a less authentic Avshalomov. In fact, I've encountered only one composer who composed Bloch as well as the original -- Rebecca Clarke.

The Avshalomov consists of four movements: "Queen Esther's Prayer," "Rebecca by the Well," "Ruth and Naomi," and "Processional." The movements, all beautifully orchestrated, run fairly short; don't expect Richard-Strauss length. Queen Esther prays like a Mittel-Europa cantor, with catches and appoggiaturas in an essentially vocal melodic line. "Rebecca by the Well," by far the liveliest movement of the four, opens with a gamelan-like orchestra, similar to Ravel's "Laidronette" movement from Ma Mère l' Oye, reminding the listener that Avshalomov resided for many years in China. The bright, fast music is punctuated by meditative passages. "Ruth and Naomi," another slow movement and my favorite of the four, achieves a noble calm. This carries over to the start of the "Processional" finale, which switches to triumph. The four movements seem a bit narrow expressively -- three of the four tableaux mine the meditative vein. However, their brevity works for them. They don't outstay their welcome.

Jan Meyerowitz studied with Zemlinsky, Respighi, and Casella, among others. Born in Germany, he didn't know he was Jewish (his parents kept the information from him) until he became a young man and the Nazis gained power. He fled to Belgium and then to the south of France, where he lived in hiding through much of the Occupation. He finally emigrated to the United States, where he gained a reputation as an opera composer, collaborating with such eminent writers as Langston Hughes. His symphony, Midrash Esther, uses the outline of cantorial melos much of the time, but more as a Respighian color, rather than as something inseparably bonded to the music's conception. It comes closest in idiom to Zemlinsky, but Meyerowitz writes leaner and meaner. One could also argue whether Meyerowitz has composed a symphony at all. The "dramatic narrative" takes precedence over any thematic argument. Indeed, you can hear an instinctive opera composer in this work, in the third movement especially, which depicts Esther revealing the fact of her Jewishness to her husband, the king. One hears at times a dialogue between the two characters. The work, though well-written, doesn't get my juices flowing, but that doesn't mean others will share my apathy.

To me, Sheila Silver's Shirat Sarah (the song of Sarah) takes best in program. Silver studied with a host of leading lights, including Ligéti, Druckman, Seymour Schifrin, Arthur Berger, and Harold Shapero. She doesn't sound like any of them, although a certain intensity, which I associate with all these composers, informs her work. The music exhibits a high degree of dissonance, but it's not atonal. Expertly written for strings (with first-chair violin taking extensive solos), it has many sources of inspiration, which you can read about in the liner notes. The title refers to the story of Sarah, who lamented her childlessness and who then conceived Isaac. However, in contrast to the Meyerowitz, Silver doesn't attempt to tell a dramatic story, although she writes powerfully and expressively (dramatic in that sense). The piece is more "about" themes than characters. Silver's ability to construct an argument sui generis impresses me the most. I've listened to this work a lot in the past month, and I discover something new each time. I don't pretend to have its measure yet, although it's not a matter of understanding the language so much as it is perceiving relationships among movements. I have no idea how to tell a masterpiece with any reliability, but Silver's score at least makes me ask the question: if not, why not. I haven't yet found an answer, a good sign.

Performers do well, with Schwarz better than Levi. Schwarz brings clear shape to his work, and in the Silver, it isn't easy. Levi has always annoyed me with a slack approach to rhythm and attack, as well as with a certain amorphousness to the general structure of a piece. And it's not as though he compensates (as Solti does, for example) by supplying anything as vulgar as physical excitement. So Meyerowitz may have gotten a raw deal. I could carp about the tonal strength of Schwarz's Seattle strings, but they do deliver an undoubtedly insightful account of a score that tends to keep many secrets.

S.G.S. (July 2005)