AVSHALOMOV / SILVER / MEYEROWITZ: Jewish Tone Poems (Adam Stern/ Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Gerard Schwarz/ Seattle Symphony Orchestra/ Wolfram Nehls/ Yoel Levi) (Naxos Milken Archives: 8.559426)
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THREE JEWISH TONE POEMS
JEWISH TONE POEMS ?á?á?á
Aaron Avshalomov: Four Biblical Tableaux (1928)
Sheila Silver: Shirat Sara (Song Of Sarah) (1985)
Jan Meyerowitz: Symphony--Midrash Esther (1954)
A quintet of biblical heroines--the matriarchs Sarah and Rebecca, kinswomen by marriage Ruth and Naomi, and the courageous Queen Esther--inspired the three tone poems by 20th-century composers heard on these world premiere recordings.?á Ranging from lush neo-Romanticism to a knottier modernist idiom, these evocative works illustrate the powerful stimulus to the creative imagination exerted by these remarkable women.
Born ineastern Siberia, Aaron Avshalomov (1894-1964) studied briefly at the Zurich conservatory and, apart from a three-year sojourn in the United States, lived until1947 in China, where he wrote operas and concertos and became conductor of theShanghai City Symphony before immigrating to the United States.?á As MilkenArchive Artistic Director Neil Levin explains, Avshalomov's creative approachinvolved grafting \elements of traditional Chinese music--which he had firstencountered as a child among the Chinese community of his Siberianhometown--onto a colorful Russian style in the manner of Rimsky-Korsakov."?á Heused the Western-oriented symphony orchestra to imitate and evoke sounds oftraditional Chinese instruments, adapted characteristic ornamentations, andused such instruments as temple blocks and finger cymbals.
In hisnotes for Four Biblical Tableaux, Jacob Avshalomov, also acomposer, remarks that despite his father's scant Jewish education andreligious upbringing, he had "absorbed enough of his heritage to both inspireand facilitate the composition of this work, which portrays three biblicalscenes populated by Jewish heroines--Queen Esther's Prayer, Rebecca bythe Well, and Ruth and Naomi, followed by a Processional."?áHe further points out that in addition to the Chinese influence, this work alsoreflects his father's admiration for the music of Ernest Bloch, particularly inthe occasional use of the melodic interval of the augmented second, cadences onopen fifths, and organically conceived grace notes, features that can also befound in traditional Chinese music.
Sheila Silver (b. 1946) studied composition with such major figures as GyorgyLigeti, Arthur Berger, Harold Shapero and Jacob Druckman, and has won manyprestigious awards and commissions.?á Among her compositions, which includechamber music, song cycles, piano pieces and an opera, are several Judaicallyrelated works, including a Psalm setting commissioned by the Gregg SmithSingers and a piano trio inspired by Primo Levi's writings on the Holocaust.?áThe tone poem Shirat Sara (Song of Sarah), a symphony for stringswith the concertmaster as soloist, was conceived while the composer was livingin Jerusalem's Old City, where she was exposed to various traditional musicalelements.?á The work revolves around the first matriarch of the Jewish people,Sarah, the wife of Abraham.?á Each of the three movements depicts one of themajor stages of her story as related in Genesis: her inability toconceive, her entreaties to God for a child, and the joy she experiences atfinally being granted that wish with the birth of her son, Isaac, in her oldage.?á The composer has remarked on Sarah's special role in the Judeo-Christianheritage of the Western world:?á "She was the first woman to maintainunfaltering faith in the one, eternal God."?á Threads of a quasi-Hassidic tuneappear throughout the piece, and the second movement is based on a contemporaryneo-Hassidic tune that Silver learned in New York.?á The work's harmonic idiomis both tonal and nontonal--sometimes in juxtaposition, sometimes in a tensionbetween the two, a duality that applies to many of the composer's works.
Born in1913 to a German-Jewish family that converted to Roman Catholicism prior to hisbirth, Jan Meyerowitz studied in Berlin with Alexander Zemlinsky and in Rome with Ottorino Respighi and Alfredo Casella.?á After surviving most of World War II inthe underground in France, he immigrated to the United States and became anassistant to Boris Goldovsky at Tanglewood.?á Meyerowitz's eclectic subjects andliterary sources include American, English, French and biblical poetry, andrange from Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings to Rimbaud and Langston Hughes,with whom he collaborated on two operas, one dealing with racial tensions inthe South and the other with the biblical heroine Esther, who is also thesubject of the symphony heard on this Milken Archive disc (the two works are musicallyunrelated).?á
MidrashEsther (commentary on [The Book of] Esther), is a symphonic tonepoem, premiered by Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, that isbased on aspects of the story--as told in the biblical Book of Esther--of theimminent genocide of the Jews in the Persian Empire and their triumphantreprieve and victory over their tormentors.?á It is also a musical reflection ontraditional exegeses and expansions upon that story and its characters, asfound in the Talmud and other post-biblical commentaries.?á In the biblicalnarrative, Haman, the highest ranking official to the King of Persia, isbesotted with envy and hatred for the Jewish people, which stems from therefusal of Mordecai, the Jewish leader and courtier, to bow down to him.?áMordecai's adopted cousin, Esther, is the king's highly prized wife and queen,who has never revealed her Jewish identity.?á Waging a personal vendetta, Hamanconvinces the king that the Jews present a collective danger to the state, andpersuades him to authorize complete annihilation of the Jewish population on aday he has chosen by lots.?á Esther intercedes for her people by revealing herJewish identity to her husband; when it is discovered that Mordecai once savedthe king's life by exposing a regicidal plot, the king turns on Haman indisgust and orders him to be hanged on the gallows originally constructed forMordecai.?á The Jews are allowed to engage their enemies on the same day thatHaman chose for the Jewish mass murder, resulting in their decisive victory.
Thefirst of the symphony's four movements, a solemn introduction to the story,evokes the imminent danger to the Jews amid impending forces of evil.?á Thesecond movement, Haman, contains frenzied passages reflecting Haman'sraw hatred and rage.?á Esther and Ahasuerus, the adagio that follows, isat once a contemplative lament and a representation of Esther's heroic poise.?áThe finale, entitled Purim, refers to the annual joyous Jewish festivalthat is celebrated to commemorate averting the catastrophe and the Jewishtriumph, which in universal terms might also be interpreted as a triumph ofjustice over tyranny.