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The Sights and Sounds on Sunday series regained its dignity after last month's brass quintet travesty with a program celebrating the NC Museum of Art's Judaica collection. Clarinetist Allan Ware and pianist Michael Adcock joined the Ciompi Quartet in a program of music on Jewish themes. The program featured some seldom performed works, including the Sextet for Piano Clarinet and String Quartet (revised from the Second Symphony) of Aaron Copland, Five Pieces for String Quartet by Nazi victim Erwin Schulhoff, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for Klezmer clarinet and string quartet by contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov, and The Overture on Hebrew Themes by the one non-Jewish composer of the lot, Sergey Prokofiev.
Although the Museum's Judaica collection consists exclusively of religious and ceremonial art, the concert focused on the Eastern European folk tradition, evoking Chagall's stetl fiddlers and flying cows more than the synagogue. The most stereotypical work on the program was, ironically, the Prokofiev Overture. Composed for some former Moscow Conservatory classmates who had emigrated to the United States, the Overture contrasts the lively, upbeat folk dances with a more somber middle section, perhaps illustrating the persistence of a people brought to near extinction by the culmination of two thousand years of persecution. The musicians, however, in a flash of comic inspiration, sauntered on stage, one by one, gradually adding to the accompaniment of the dancing introductory chords on the piano. The group went on to portray this bittersweet work with both energy and pathos.
Aaron Copland composed the Sextet for Piano, Clarinet and String Quartet before he had found his distinctly American voice. As Adcock commented in the oral program notes, Copland was in his "abstract expressionist" phase. Originally composed for orchestra as his Second Symphony, it was rejected as being too difficult, and Copland reset it for chamber ensemble. It's still difficult. So much so that the Ciompi and friends managed to get through the notes with little left for turning it into music. It's not, however, only the fault of the musicians. The Sextet is a study in syncopation and cross rhythms - so much so that it begins to lose its effect by hammering these devices to death. Nevertheless, from a melodic and harmonic point of view, one can discern the genesis of the later Copland sound. And it's important to be able to hear less successful works, if, for nothing else, to help in the understanding of what makes a masterpiece.
Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet are really five dances, opening with a limping Viennese waltz, and ending with a wild tarantella. Schulhoff did not see himself as a Jewish composer, but rather as a member of the Dada and Cabaret avant-garde of Berlin in the 20s. The Ciompi played with sensitivity and energy, getting into the spirit of the spiky humor of the dances.
Born in 1960 to Ashkenazi Jews living in La Plata, Argentina, Golijov (pronounced GOH-lee-off) grew up surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical music, klezmer, bossa nova, rumba, and Astor Piazzolla's nuevo tango. In 1983 he moved to Israel to study at the Rubin Academy of Jerusalem. He came to the US in 1986 and earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with George Crumb. He currently teaches at the College of the Holy Cross. In 1995 he won the Kennedy Center Friedheim prize for The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind . Isaac the Blind was a 13th century kabbalist rabbi who dictated a manuscript asserting that everything that takes place in the universe is the result of combinations of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Golijov has also written music for the Catholic liturgy, including a highly controversial Passion.
Dreams and Prayers consists of three movements, surrounded by a prelude and a postlude. According to the composer, the three sections represent the three languages of the Jewish people: Aramaic, Yiddish-the language of middle European exile-and sacred Hebrew, the language of the liturgy and commentaries on the Torah But the Klezmer quality pervades all the movements. While the work doesn't always feature the clarinet, this instrument is central to its meaning. In the first movement, it is the clarinet that plays Avinu Malkeinu (our Father Our King) one of the central prayers for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the second movement, the clarinet leads in converting the ensemble into a stetl band.
Ware himself was also a one-man (Klezmer) band, playing five different members of the clarinet family: clarinets in A, B-flat and C, plus bass clarinet and a modern version of the basset horn. The various timbres of the five instruments were important elements in conveying the mood of the sections. But even the most solemn moments incorporated the joy in living symbolized by the Klezmer dances.
Appreciation of the performance could have been greatly enhanced had there been program notes - the Golijov didn't even get a few introductory remarks from the stage. And where were the "sights?" Other SSS concerts have at least provided some visuals to illustrate the connection between the music and art. For the Golijov alone, slides of some of the Museum's ceremonial art, as well as a few paintings of stetl life - even though the museum does not have any in its collection - would have fulfilled SSS's mission and the audience's understanding.