Ever since 1908, when St. Petersburg’s Society for Jewish Folk Music dedicated itself to establishing a new Jewish art music based on traditional Jewish melodies, modern classical composers have been rummaging through the Jewish tradition looking for inspiration. And a surprising amount of the resulting music has lived up to composer Hugo Weisgall’s dictum that for serious music to be Jewish, it first has to be good.
Unfortunately, much of it is also very rarely performed. Have you ever seen David Amram’s Songs of the Soul, Darius Milhaud’s Études sur des thèmes liturgiques du Comtat Vanaissin, or Weisgall’s own critically acclaimed Esther on a concert program? (OK, Esther opened the New York City Opera’s 2009-2010 season, but that was the first time it had been performed by a major opera company since its premiere in 1993.)
Still, composers keep trying.
The last few months have seen the debuts of several classical works with Jewish connections, and like much of the Judeo-classical music already out there, they span a number of genres, from chamber music to opera; and they are attached to some fairly prominent names. Most important, they’re all very, very good.
Dalit Hadass Warshaw, an American composer who first studied piano and composition with her Israeli-born mother, wrote an eight-minute suite for orchestra when she was just 7 years old. Now 36, she may no longer be a child prodigy, but she has hardly grown stodgy. The music on her new CD, Invocations (Albany Records), is brainy and surprising, bristling with dissonance one moment and purring lyrically along the next. Who could resist a series of rigorous permutations on the dreidel song (“The ‘Dreidel’ Variations”)—or a piece that calls for not one, but two theremins (“Nizk’orah”), both played by the composer herself?
Yoav Gal’s multimedia “videOpera,” Mosheh, isn’t exactly new—he began presenting bits and pieces of it in 2003—but the finished work premiered this past January. It was worth the wait.
Gal is interested in more than just sound. He studied visual art at Israel’s Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts and likes to design his own costumes and sets. Not surprisingly, he is a multimedia kind of guy: Mosheh, which relocates the story of Moses to Brooklyn, includes both dance and video. (God is represented onscreen with disembodied lips and eyes.)
Gal’s music, however, stands on its own. Like Warshaw, he is very much a contemporary composer, and there are sections of Mosheh—like “The Plagues,” with its intersecting vocal lines, clangorous percussion, and droning clarinet; or “Colonnade A,” with its eerily swooping melodies for voice and winds—that may grate on more conservative ears.
No matter how far he pushes the envelope, though, Gal seems incapable of writing anything genuinely unattractive. His habit of repeating sequences of layered melodies while subjecting them to incremental, almost subliminal, variation lends a hypnotic effect to even his most discordant constructions. “The Song of Miriam,” in which strings and mallet percussion orbit each other in perpetual musical motion, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in a long time: a wondrous bit of clockwork whose cyclical perfection recalls Balinese gamelan music.
And while we’re on the subject of beautiful music, we might as well talk about Judd Greenstein’s Sh’lomo, which premiered at the Ecstatic Music Festival in March. Gal and Greenstein are fellow musical travelers. The two met at Bang on a Can, a kind of sleep-away camp for up-and-coming composers. Both are stalwarts of the indie classical scene, whose youthful members present their work through independent, artist-run outfits like Greenstein’s New Amsterdam Records, and at nonstandard venues like Le Poisson Rouge, the Manhattan nightclub where Gal will present Three Weeks, a Hebrew-language work about the destruction of the Second Temple, in May. And they share an affinity for repetitive, interlocking melodies—the Minimalist gift that keeps on giving, and giving, and giving. Yet for all that, their music sounds very different.
Sh’lomo is a meditation on King Solomon for multiple singers and electric-acoustic chamber ensemble (in this case, Greenstein’s own group, The Yehudim). Some of the biblical imagery in the lyrics is striking—“with hands encased in blood we build a legacy,” “land of milk and honey—I can taste it, but I can’t go in”—and would be at odds with the generally sunny disposition of Greenstein’s music, if that music weren’t also so fiercely disciplined and emotionally intense.
From the opening movement, “Éleh B’né Yisraél,” Sh’lomo is dominated by brief, interlocking figures for electronic keyboard, electric bass, and electric guitar, combined with swirling synthesizer phrases and a battery of percussion: glockenspiel, marimba, frame drums, crotales. As in Mosheh, those figures loop back upon themselves over and over again, creating a Russian doll effect: The nested melodies form musical wheels within wheels, and the whole is considerably more than the sum of its parts. But Greenstein’s bright diatonic harmonies, rock-inflected rhythms, and eclectic electric palette give his music an entirely different character.
With its staccato, machine-shop rhythms and brutal, clipped bass line, the movement titled “Hands of Blood, Hands of Building” resembles hyper-sophisticated prog-rock. And the following “Vayomer Sh’lomo,” whose airy vocal textures are initially supported by sparse frame and bass drum accompaniment, sounds like the unholy love child of Renaissance vocal polyphony and post-Minimalist synth-pop.
Building toward a climax, the piece, which is not yet complete, grows faster, denser, and more chromatic. Complex polyrhythms emerge from the quilt of simple patterns, and a terraced, descending melody appears that I found myself humming on the way out of the hall. How often does that happen at a concert of contemporary classical music?
How often does that happen at all?