Remembering JFK: 50th Anniversary Concert—Music of Bernstein, Lieberson and Gershwin. National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach and Howard Mitchell. Ondine. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Lori Laitman: Vedem; Fathers. Angela Niederloh, mezzo-soprano; Ross Hauck, tenor; Northwest Boy Choir and “Music of Remembrance” ensemble (Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Mikhail Shmidt, violin; Walter Gray, cello; Mina Miller, artistic director and piano). Naxos. $9.99.
Haskell Small: Lullaby of War; Renoir’s Feast; Three Etudes in Sound. Martin Rayner, narrator; Soheil Nasseri, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Light and Shadow: Modern Orchestral Works by Rain Worthington, Rebecca Oswald, Adrienne Albert, Tadd Russo, Russ Lombardi and Daniel Perttu. Navona. $16.99.
Meira Warshauer: Symphony No. 1, “Living Breathing Earth”; Tekeeyah (a call). Haim Avitsur, shofar and trombone; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Vronsky. Navona. $16.99.
Sometimes the music is almost beside the point. Music can be a memory booster, an anodyne for everyday cares, a reminder of better times, a way of recapturing the past or coming to terms with it. When used in these ways, it can become secondary to the emotions it draws forth from listeners – especially when those listeners are predisposed to react with a particular type of emotion because of the circumstances in which a concert is presented. Thus, the quality of the performances was largely incidental at a January 2011 memorial concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., because the event was staged as a remembrance of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. People essentially attended a memorial service that happened to be built around music and was being held in a venue named for Kennedy after he was assassinated: the emotions surrounding the event were what mattered. And they are also what will matter to purchasers of the two-CD set based on the 50th-anniversary concert and in part recorded live at the time. The CD’s cover features John and Jackie Kennedy in one of their typically hagiographic and elegant poses – a clear invitation to nostalgia. As it happens, this is the first National Symphony Orchestra recording under the ensemble’s new music director, Christoph Eschenbach, and it is certainly a worthy one, including music actually played in 1961 as well as some created as a Kennedy tribute. Thus, Leonard Bernstein’s Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy is followed by Peter Lieberson’s Remembering JFK (An American Elegy), in which actor Richard Dreyfuss intones excerpts from three Kennedy speeches, separated by orchestral interludes. The piece serves its purpose well, although it seems too much of an occasional work to have much staying power. Also here are Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” with Eschenbach predictably emphasizing the slower and more emotive music, and then Gershwin’s Concerto in F with pianist Tzimon Barto. This is a bright, well-played rendition, perhaps a little lacking in vivacity – and it contrasts in many interesting ways with the version featuring Earl Wild that appears on the second CD. That one was recorded at Kennedy’s inaugural concert, with the National Symphony led by its then-conductor, Howard Mitchell. The Wild/Mitchell version, despite its not-quite-top-quality sound, is altogether more winning and forthcoming than the Barto/Eschenbach one. The second CD also includes excerpts and original commentary from the radio broadcast of Kennedy’s inaugural concert – a fitting addition to a recording in which music matters less than what it evokes.
Something analogous is going on with the new Naxos CD of two works by Lori Laitman (born 1955). The main work here, an oratorio called Vedem, was written last year on commission from Music of Remembrance, a group dedicated to remembering Holocaust musicians through their art. The title refers to a secret magazine created by teenage boy prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp – a magazine whose pages somehow survived the war, although most of the boys did not. Laitman’s work, which sets poetry written by the boys who produced the magazine, is designed to be uplifting, asserting the essential humanity of the youths despite the horrendous conditions in which they found themselves. There is certainly beauty in the setting and in the poetry itself, but strictly on a musical basis, the work is rather ordinary, evoking emotions in expected ways. The same is true of Fathers, written in 2002 and revised last year, which uses poems by Anne Ranasinghe (born Anneliese Katz) and David Vogel to, once again, assert humane values in a time of unrelieved inhumanity. The members of Music of Remembrance perform both works with sensitivity and concern for their underlying emotional basis, and this CD will surely appeal to listeners anxious to remember the Holocaust and those who perished in it. But that is its primary value: on a strictly musical basis, it is nothing very special.
War is also also the focus of Haskell Small (born 1948) in Lullaby of War (2007), in which narrator Martin Rayner declaims poetry by Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman and, among others, Joy Harjo (“I smelled the burning grease of corpses after they were lit by the pages of our poems”). The emotions evoked here are predictable, the poetry – most of it little known – appropriate in its antiwar sentiments, and the use of piano (very well played by Soheil Nasseri) frequently original. But the overall effect is rather bland, perhaps because so many works evocative of similar emotions have been written by so many composers, so many times. More interesting in several ways is Renoir’s Feast (2005), which uses a bridge passage along the lines of the Promenade in Pictures at an Exhibition to celebrate a different sort of art from that portrayed by Mussorgsky. Small’s interest here is Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, and he offers musical “portraits” of the various characters in the painting, giving them personalities that he infers from Renoir’s work. Listeners unfamiliar with the painting will nevertheless find elements of this piano suite enjoyable – but it takes knowledge of Renoir to appreciate Small’s piece fully. For Three Etuds in Sound (1993), on the other hand, no special knowledge is needed: this is an intriguing combination of multiple textures and ideas that the pianist must decide how to mix, match and emphasize. Nasseri provides exemplary readings throughout this CD.
The potpourri of nine-minute-or-shorter modern orchestral works called Light and Shadow seems also to exist primarily to evoke emotions or create in music the visual impression of light, dark and the shades in between. But this is a very general characterization, and in truth, the eight works here are constructed in many different ways and for many different purposes. None of the six composers is heard for more than about 12 minutes, so the CD is not intended for fans of any of them; yet the works themselves, taken as a whole, are not cohesive enough for the disc to tell a coherent musical story. It is hard to see exactly who will be interested in this CD, other than those who want to sample a variety of pieces by modern composers who have won awards such as the Trustee Fellowship, ASCAP and National Endowment for the Arts. Furthermore, the performances are literally all over the map: Rain Worthington’s Tracing a Dream is played by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Ovidiu Marinescu; Daniel Perttu’s Light and Shadow in the Yosemite Valley (which gives the CD its title) is given by the Ohio State University Symphony Orchestra under Marshall Haddock; Russ Lombardi’s Tonisadie is performed by the Pilsen Philharmonic Orchestra under Vit Micko; and the remaining works are offered by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, also conducted by Micko. Those works are Finding the Murray River and Sleep, Child by Rebecca Oswald; Boundaries and Interiors by Adrienne Albert; and Family Voices by Tadd Russo. Aside from the titles, though, listeners unfamiliar with this music – as most listeners will be – have no real guide to what the works are about or how they were constructed. The result is a CD that, while it has some interesting moments, will be a shot in the dark for nearly all potential purchasers.
Meira Warshauer (born 1949) is also scarcely a household name as a composer, but the new CD of her orchestral music does at least give potential listeners hints about its content. The title of her Symphony No. 1 makes it clear that this is a work about the importance of loving and respecting our planet and paying close attention to the needs of all its inhabitants. These are unexceptional sentiments, and the four movements’ tone painting, primarily of the rainforest, is pretty much what one would expect from their titles: “Call of the Cicadas,” “Tahuayo River at Night,” “Wings in Flight” and “Living, Breathing Earth.” There are deliberate imitations of nature sounds here, coupled with music that is more evocative of moods and coloration than specific to any particular scene. The work is undoubtedly well-intentioned and is generally well constructed as well. But its underlying emotional canvas is not especially compelling, and it is rather obvious in its musical attempts to appeal to the better nature of everyone hearing it. More intriguing in several ways is Tekeeyah (a call), a concerto in which soloist Haim Avitsur plays not only the trombone but also the shofar – the horn of a ram or antelope, used to awaken the soul in Jewish tradition. The sound of the shofar is quite restricted (think of blowing into a shell at the beach), but Warshauer does a good job of limiting its use and juxtaposing its tone with the more varied and interesting one of the trombone. The work’s title, though, relates specifically to the shofar: Tekeeyah is the Hebrew word for sounding a long tone on the horn. And therefore this work, like the symphony with which it shares the CD, has a primarily extra-musical intent – in this case, the composer says, to call humanity to awaken to its true human essence. This is more New Age-y than Judaic, and so is much of the music; but here as in the symphony, Warshauer is primarily concerned with using her musical ability to further a particular cause or viewpoint. Also here as in the symphony, the cause is one that certainly has nothing wrong with it but that is equally certainly not particularly unusual, unfamiliar or creative. Putting musical creativity at the service of not-very-innovative sociopolitical thinking results in works whose “call” is likely to be of interest only to those who already share Warshauer’s attitudes and would like to listen to works designed to confirm them. The music in and of itself, despite some interesting elements, is more in the service of a cause than it is listenable for its own sake.