ZAIMONT: Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening (excerpts) (1976). A
Woman of Valor (eshet hayil) (1977). Parable: A Tale of Abram
and Isaac (1986).
Meditations at the Time of the New Year (1997).
James Maddalena (baritone),
Margaret Kohler (soprano), Frances Lucey (soprano), John Aler (tenor),
Randall Scarlata (baritone), Rabbi Rodney Mariner (speaker), Martha Cowan
(soprano), Kimball Wheeler (mezzo), Harold Lester (harpsichord), Everest
String Quartet/Samuel Adler, Ernst Senff Choir, Radio Symphony Orchestra
Berlin/Gerard Schwarz, The Ruskin Ensemble, Laudibus Choir/Michael Brewer,
Choral Society of Southern California/Nick Strimple.
Naxos 8.559444 ()
(DDD) TT: 66:12
Wonderful. Despite her awards and many commissions, the music of Judith
Lang Zaimont has largely flown under the radar. I think this due largely
to the lack
of recordings on widely-distributed labels. This Naxos release, part of its
Milken Archives series of American Jewish music, should do something
to correct the
oversight. I hope only that it doesn't get lost in Naxos's glut of releases,
for it counts as one of the glories of the series.
Zaimont studied with Hugo Weisgall, Jack Beeson, Otto Luening, and André Jolivet,
which lets you in on how highly people regarded her potential but gives you no
clue as to what her music sounds like. From the little I've read about her, she
seems to be an artist with a mission. She knew she was "born to be a composer" from
about the age of eleven. To me, this usually indicates someone with definite
ideas of what sort of music she wants to create. It's not a question of drifting
into composition or, like Mendelssohn perhaps, having composition a "natural" part
of oneself from the beginning. Certainly, Zaimont writes music of decided individuality,
within a largely traditionally tonal frame. In her aesthetic, she shares more
with composers before 1950 than after it. But she doesn't write Nice Music, either,
and she has a wide expressive range. Not all her work addresses the empyrean.
She has pieces that she's written for fun, and more power to her.
All the works here, by the nature of the series, concentrate on one aspect
of Zaimont's output -- her inspiration from Jewish and Biblical subjects. Each
these scores has meat, but the Sacred Service aims the highest, it seems to
me. Despite its title, strictly speaking it's not a liturgical work, although
has adapted some of it for use in a service. To a great extent, Zaimont treats
her texts rather regally, taking from here and there to fashion her libretto.
All of it seems to come from Reform, rather than Orthodox or Conservative,
practice. Indeed, that she writes for the Sabbath evening service (Friday night,
than Saturday morning) indicates Reform tradition. Almost every Jewish composer
working consciously as a Jew comes up against the towering example of Ernest
Bloch and makes a choice of following Bloch or trying another path. In general,
Zaimont follows Bloch in the distribution of the music between a soloist (also
a baritone) representing a cantor and the chorus representing the congregation.
Although Zaimont, like Bloch, strikes an epic note, it's her own epic note.
It's all tonally-based. If I had to say whom she sounded like, I'd name both
(in certain moments) and Jolivet. Her orchestration in particular strikes me
as very French. She builds firmly over larger spans. Nothing meanders. All
her lines give you the feeling that they lead somewhere, and the destination,
unpredictable, seems right once you arrive. She's not afraid of dissonance,
but she's also not shy about writing a good tune. Yet the tune is hardly ever
point of her work. All the compositional elements - melody, harmony, rhythm,
color, and motific argument tend to find a hierarchical equilibrium. For example,
one of the numbers of the Sacred Service uses a widely-used melody for the
Sh'ma Yisrael -- the so-called Sulzer melody. This tune, of stunning banality,
me out of the temple faster than Jesus did the money changers. Zaimont, however,
somehow finds gold. This passage reminds me of Bartók's transmutation
of Hungarian folk music.
The choral writing throughout cannily mixes declamatory, homophonic passages
with simple, clear contrapuntal ones. Zaimont concerns herself with making
the text intelligible, even through large orchestral and vocal resources.
The solo writing, particularly the second section ("God and Father"),
reminds me a bit of Yardumian, although less static, more purposeful. My favorite
movement, the fourth ("Why do we deal treacherously"), sets off squibs
of stretti and jazzy syncopations in the chorus against the soloist, who repeats
the same tune throughout -- the "answer" to the choral question: "Seek
good, not evil, that ye may live." The movement pays tribute to Zaimont's
skill not only in marshalling all her forces, but also in her handling of the
solo repetition, which never sounds merely repetitive. Rather, we get a drama
between chorus and solo, with the answer struggling for resolution and finally
emerging from a choral disintegration into whispers.
The singers of the Ernst Senff Choir handle their role adequately. The English
diction is a bit lazy, however, and this works to their detriment in the quick
third movement, where the rhythm becomes very ragged indeed. No complaints
about soloist Maddalena, and Schwarz delivers an exciting performance that
gets to the essence of the work. He lets you know exactly how fine a piece
it is. This leads to my biggest complaint of all. The disc presents only six
Zaimont's sixteen movements. On the one hand, I'm grateful for what I got,
but why did I get only that? Zaimont's service seems to me, considering these
a major contribution not just to Jewish music, but to 20th-century choral music.
It cries out for a complete recording.
A Woman of Valor, for string quartet and voice, strikes me as a lot looser
structurally. It has an introduction which features a minor third as a kind
of generating interval
for the themes, but the piece as a whole meanders somewhat. I feel a bit churlish
for pointing this out, because it is also very beautiful. Zaimont follows the
turns of the text rather than finds a musical structure for it. Still, each
section sings. I don't know why the looseness should bother me. After all,
I adore Grieg.
My niggling might arise simply from the work's placement on the program. The
Sacred Service excerpts are a tough act to follow.
Zaimont takes a large artistic risk with Parable: A Tale of Abraham and
Isaac. She invites comparison to two masterpieces by Benjamin Britten. The text combines
the Brome mystery play of Abraham and Isaac, Wilfred Owen's "Parable of
the Old Man and the Young," and the kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer
of mourning. Britten, of course, set part of the mystery play in his Canticle
II and the Owen in his War Requiem. Why anyone would knowingly do this to themselves,
I haven't a clue. But Zaimont, to a very great extent, brings it off. Once again,
the music illuminates the text, and the juxtaposition of various texts deepen
the meaning of the central image. The mystery play takes Owen's "Abram," a
symbol of dangerous self-righteousness, and gives him some humanity. Abram sacrifices
his son, but he doesn't feel good about it. Nevertheless, the result is the same: "But
the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one
by one." At this point, a narrator recites the kaddish, presumably for Isaac,
and the piece really takes off. Normally, I can't tolerate melodrama (words spoken
to music -- what's the point?). Here, it's beautiful and affecting. Perhaps the
ritual nature of the words removes the curse from the technique. We get a benediction
for the victim as we affirm the glory of God. Conceptually, the work tugs at
you several different ways. The performance counts as my second-favorite on the
CD. The choral work is more incisive, the soloists as expressive as any (particularly
baritone Randall Scarlata as Abraham), and the ensemble crisp. Michael Brewer
sorts out Zaimont's occasionally busy textures beautifully.
With texts drawn from various sources, mainly associated with the holiday Rosh
Hashana, the Meditations at the Time of the New Year consists of two sections.
The first, "Dawn," paints a quietly ecstatic picture of sunrise. The
second, "Hope," begins with a bell-type tune and ends in a quiet blessing.
The piece is scored for chorus, tubular bells, and glockenspiel. The percussion,
delicately used, accents the choral music. Indeed, the chorus bears the brunt
of the work, and the Meditations give us Zaimont's choral writing up close and
personal. Zaimont makes no concessions to performing ease. In fact, the interaction
between percussion and voices test almost cruelly the choir's ability to keep
pitch. But the music rewards the effort. Zaimont writes tonally, but you really
can't predict where she's going to end up harmonically. The "surprise" chord
is as much a feature of her work (although in a different way) as it is in Fauré's.
I hear some similarity to Copland's a cappella writing, but it's the resemblance
between a child and great-grandfather. Nick Strimple's Choral Society of Southern
California gives a tremendous choral performance, with crisp diction, the sense
that they know what they're singing about, and an heroic job of maintaining pitch.
I yield to no one in my admiration for Neil Levin's musicianship and scholarship,
but his liner notes are largely irrelevant to the music on the CD. He's more
interested in explaining Jewish theological concepts than in dealing with the
music itself. I suspect his remarks will interest only a very few. Nevertheless,
in all, a superb entry in Naxos's American Jewish Music series.
S.G.S. (January 2006)