SCHOENFIELD: Viola Concerto / Four Motets / The Merchant and the Pauper (Naxos Milken Archives: 8.559418)
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PAUL SCHOENFIELD: THREE WORKS
PAUL SCHOENFIELD (b. 1947)
CONCERTO for VIOLA and ORCHESTRA (1998)
FOUR MOTETS (NEED YEAR)
THE MERCHANT and the PAUPER (excerpts from Act II) (1999)
Award-winning composer Paul Schoenfield, who was born in Detroit and lives both in this country and in Israel, considers himself essentially a folk musician.?á His works are inspired by a wide range of musical experience: American and foreign popular idioms, vernacular and folk sources (one writer has stated that his works \do for Hassidic music what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango"), and the time-honored traditions of cultivated art music, sometimes treated in innovative ways.?á These seemingly disparate elements are frequently combined in one composition, often to surprising effect.?á As the composer himself remarked, "this is not the kind of music for relaxation, but the kind that makes people sweat; not only the performer, but the audience."?á Schoenfield's compositions, which have been performed by such leading ensembles as the New York Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony, include Klezmer Rondos, a concerto for flute, tenor and orchestra that was included among the Milken Archive's inaugural releases in September, 2003.
The Concertofor Viola and Orchestra was commissioned by and written expressly for thecomposer's friend, Robert Vernon, principal violist of The Cleveland Orchestra,who premiered it with that ensemble in 1998 and is the soloist on thisrecording with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin led by Yoel Levi.?á Writtenprimarily in Israel, the work is built on fragments of melodies the composerheard sung by children in a kindergarten located directly beneath his studio.?áSome of these were liturgical tunes--several Hassidic in origin--and others wereapparently common children's play songs.?á The first movement is based on ahaunting Lubavitcher Hassidic melody that is contrapuntally treated.?á This isfollowed by Soliloquy, a lyrical, prayer-like meditation.?á The thirdmovement, King David Dancing Before the Ark, is drawn from a specificbiblical incident: King David, having retrieved the Holy Ark from thePhilistines in a military victory, carries it into Jerusalem amidst exuberantpublic jubilation.?á Putting aside the viola's customary reflective nature,Schoenfield treats it here as a highly virtuoso instrument, making considerabletechnical demands.?á As Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil Levin remarks,this finale is also "rich in generic inflections and gestures associated withso-called klezmer music--the styles and sonorities typical of 19th-centuryeastern European Jewish wedding and street bands."?á Many melodic fragments fromthe preceding two movements figure prominently in this energetic conclusion,unifying the entire composition Four Motets is a deeply felt, acappella setting of four excerpts from Psalm 86.?á The verses chosen bythe composer center on intense personal supplication to God and conclude on anote of reverence and praise.?á While deliberately cast in the style of HighRenaissance polyphony, with its seamless voice-leading and soaringspirituality, these settings are also marked by subtle, more contemporarychromatic and harmonic inflections.?á Neil Levin points out that "Schoenfield'smotets offer one of the first reconsiderations of Renaissance polyphony inconnection with sacred Hebrew texts" since the work of Italian Jewish composerSalomone Rossi, whose collection of Hebrew liturgical settings, published inVenice in 1623 and virtually forgotten until the 19th century,constitutes the only substantial repertoire of synagogue music rooted in lateRenaissance style.?á On this disc, the BBC singers are conducted by Avner Itai.
Schoenfield'stwo-act opera, The Merchant and the Pauper, was commissioned bythe Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which premiered it in 1999.?á Its libretto isadapted from a tale by one of the most significant personalities in Hassidicphilosophy, history and lore--Reb [Rabbi] Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1811), theUkrainian founder of the Bratslaver Hassidic sect, who was unique amongcharismatic Hassidic leaders in his use of allegorical and even supernaturalfolk-like tales to convey his theological, moral and mystical teachings.?á Hisfamous tales reflect his primary concerns: the kabbalistic doctrines of repair(tikkun), restoration and redemption of what is broken, both in thecosmos and in the individual soul, and the eventual coming of the Messiah.?á Onthe surface, Reb Nahman's stories, replete with stock characters, improbableromances, mysterious riddles and evil spells, resemble universal fairy talesmore than they do traditional Jewish folklore or religious literature.?á On adeeper level, they are saturated with mystical allegories, metaphors andsymbols.
Insearching for an operatic subject, Schoenfield sought an element of seriousJewish literature worthy of probing theatrical treatment that would also embodyhis personal approach to "Jewish music"--one of joy and spiritual elevation.?á Hebuilt upon the tradition of the medieval European purimspiel, a joculargenre tied to the celebration of the Purim holiday that celebrates the aversionof Jewish genocide in ancient Persia.?á In the composer's own words, this operais "some entertainment to 'make the sad happy and bring peace among enemies,'as the Talmud expresses...I haven't had to concern myself with profundity ormusicological importance--because such an attitude would be antithetical both tothe purimspiel and to the views of Reb Nahman."
Thecomposer's remarks notwithstanding, The Merchant and the Pauper is morethan diversionary entertainment.?á Rich in allegorical references to the DivinePresence (sh'khina) and the hoped-for messianic era, it is marked bylyricism and musical intensity, with echoes of eastern European melodies.?áThree scenes from the opera, including the joyful finale, are heard on thisMilken Archive disc.?á A narrator, representing Reb Nahman himself, recounts thestory and provides allegorical commentary, and the emotional reactions of thecharacters are expressed in the arias, ensembles and choruses.?á The plotconcerns the Merchant's son and the uncommonly lovely Pauper's daughter,Beauty, who have been promised to each other in marriage.?á Greed, pride andattempted murder almost destroy this original (i.e. Divine) intention.?á Theyoung man escapes death and is shipwrecked on the shores of a wild landinhabited only by animals, where Beauty, abducted by an evil pirate,subsequently turns up as well.?á Eventually, the pirate is devoured by theanimals and all is set right; the reunited lovers return to their homeland torule together in joy.?á On one level, this story can be viewed as a metaphor formessianic redemption, implying faith in the eventual resolution of conflict andthe establishment of permanent harmony in the universe.?á At the same time, thisrelatively transparent interpretation does not negate the basic Hassidic tenetthat Reb Nahman's tales contain indecipherable, deeply embedded secrets.?á Heardon this recording are soloists, chorus and orchestra from the University of Michigan Opera, led by Kenneth Kiesler.