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CD Review

Benjamin Lees

Naxos 8.559002

Symphony #4 "Memorial Candles" (1985)

Kimball Wheeler, mezzo-soprano
James Buswell, violin
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.559002 DDD 61:42
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Any work of art on the Holocaust – in fact, any serious meditation on the Holocaust – is fraught with dangers. The acts committed terrify so and the suffering endured lie so beyond comprehension that the frame art provides, through both flat recital and bathetic excess, can easily diminish what went on. Furthermore, we tend to condemn morally those works which fall short. Yet art also forces us not just to remember, but to remember with feeling. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre provided its own horrors, but because there's no great artistic monument, we don't care. Nevertheless, forgetting human cruelty opens us up to more of it, just as the knives in the kitchen drawer make catastrophe possible.

Several composers have written works listeners have associated with the Holocaust, among them Pergament, Schifrin, Górecki, Britten, Vainberg, Tippett, and Shostakovich. Most compositions on the subject fall from their own overweight or lack of strength. Some fail to leave much of an impression at all. Yet, it's a subject that makes the composer who chooses it want to give the best he has. Most composers don't set out to produce crap. I find it extraordinarily interesting that a composer who identified himself very strongly with his Jewish roots, Ernest Bloch, wrote nothing about the Holocaust and, in fact, actually stopped composing during the war, due to extreme depression over the events. If the subject stifles an artist with the range of Bloch, it should at least give others pause.

Benjamin Lees has built a solid, even distinguished reputation as a composer, although in common with most composers working in a postwar neoclassic idiom, his work hasn't yet garnered much academic attention in print. Most of the writing on Lees's output has taken the form of reviews of recordings, one indication of the importance of the genre to composers of Lees's generation and general style. It's one thing to trash a work by Stravinsky in Gramophone, since Stravinsky has the attention of other writers, but quite another to dump on a composer like William Bergsma.

Both American Record Guide and Fanfare reviewed this work. The American Record Guide's Allen Gimbel came up with a tiresome crank – more a record of dyspepsia than a serious attempt to engage the work. Among other things, he complains about (I swear) the liner notes and counts how many times Lees's setting repeats a word. He also describes Nobel Laureate Nelly Sachs's poems, which serve as Lees's texts, as "dated" – how, he never says. I don't doubt the sincerity of Gimbel's response, but I can dismiss this kind of rant fairly easily, particularly when it fails to focus on the piece supposedly under discussion and to make a case.

On the other hand, Fanfare's review comes from Walter Simmons, a writer and producer whom I've long admired as one of the heroes in the effort to promote American music. A typically thoughtful piece, it adopts a tone "more in sorrow than in anger," and judges the symphony wanting on several musical counts. Since I find the symphony very powerful indeed, I think Simmons's review deserves a considered reply.

Simmons makes the following points:

  1. The symphony takes too much from Shostakovich,
    even to the point of quoting actual themes
  2. Three slow movements tax the listener
  3. The work tends to sprawl

The first point – the most considerable of the three – is much subtler than it first appears. Simmons is not saying that everybody has to come up with a new musical language. After all, by that criterion, Bach wouldn't escape hanging. He writes:

Mediocre critics and pretentious amateurs are often quick to point a derisive finger at "derivative" moments, shouting "gotcha," as if there were some disgrace in a musical passage's resembling a passage by another composer. On the other hand, there is a problem when the essence of a composer's expressive content is subsumed within the work of a prior composer (as in the case of Bernard Heiden and Hindemith…), or when one consistently turns to another as a model for developing musical ideas (as Leonard Bernstein often did with Copland).

Simmons takes the trouble to point out that neither usually applies to Lees, but in this work, the Shostakovich similarities make Simmons wish for the real thing. I like it that Simmons focuses on a particular work – the solid basis of an aesthetic judgement – and in some detail. In fact, I hear almost everything he points out – including a tiny appearance of the DSCH sequence in the second movement – but I have a different take. I believe that both Shostakovich and Lees (in this work) both hit a kind of melos found in Eastern European cantorial chant. Shostakovich probably comes at it from some remove and mostly unconsciously – through Judaic and generally Semitic influence on Russian folk song. Lees, on the other hand, most likely has chosen deliberately, but not from Shostakovich. First, nothing is really made of DSCH in the Lees work. It's more a momentary efflorescence and transformation of previous material – like seeing shapes in clouds. If one hears Shostakovich, fine – it's a feature, not a bug, as far as I'm concerned, like a bit of newsprint in a Cubist collage. Second, the personalities of the two composers and the ways their music moves differ greatly. Vainberg, for example, is practically Shostakovich's musical Doppelgänger – I doubt most listeners not thoroughly acquainted with Shostakovich's catalogue could guess the real composer of a Vainberg piece. I consider Vainberg's work magnificent. The fact that it sounds like Shostakovich is by me a plus, and yet it violates both of Simmons's axioms. I'd love to have twenty-plus more Shostakovich symphonies, even if they were written by someone else. Yet Lees comes nowhere close to Vainberg's level of resemblance on either count. Finally, the symphonic meta-narratives Lees and Shostakovich construct have little to do with one another. Simmons draws attention to the slow movement of Shostakovich's Fifth as an unhealthy, overbearing influence on Lees's second movement. I don't see his point at all. To me, Shostakovich basically works the Mahler adagio – classical song (in this case, lament) with motific variation, while Lees comes up with something sui generis, dramatic rather than (as with Shostakovich) lyric, a perpetual variation of a small number of tiny, basic patterns – a worrying of close intervals – with what sounds to me like the traditional Rosh Hashonah shofar calls occasionally breaking through. In short, whatever resemblance bothers Simmons has flown by me. But my kind of "rebuttal" is ultimately superfluous. The real issue, of course, is not close imitation or even the expressive absorption of one composer's music in that of another, but, crudely put, whether the work convinces you all by itself. Obviously, it hasn't convinced Simmons, even if he hadn't given those particular reasons, but it does connect with me and, when I checked customer comments at amazon.com, with at least two other listeners. This is why horses race.

Enough already. I want to talk about why the piece has such power for me. First, I admire the risks Lees has taken. The immensity of the subject, as I've said, can overwhelm a Holocaust work. Lees, in common with most successful Holocaust writers, including Nelly Sachs (Lees's poet), explicitly deals with a piece of it, like grabbing hold of one thread dangling from a coat. Consequently, Sachs's poems deal with events allusively and elliptically. The music of her language, rather than her images, connects us to the power of such events. The images give a "local habitation" to that power. Like Blake, Sachs can "see a world in a grain of sand." Lees's instrumental argument serves the same function in the symphony, while the vocals locate the emotional neighborhood. Moreover, Lees – as Vaughan Williams did in his "Pastoral" Symphony – comes up with a symphony of movements, "all slow." Although plenty happens in the symphony, the slow pace challenges the listener to keep up, without the candy of a quick dance.

Second, Lees has fashioned – from traditional elements, certainly – his own music of mourning. For example, Górecki's Symphony #3 deals knowingly in the standard musical rituals of lament: an orchestra dominated by the lower instruments, minor tonality, and so on. It's all very distant and abstract. That it has affected so many listeners testifies to the power of those conventions. On the other hand, Lees has given us something intensely personal – a tonal idiom, harmonically and emotionally fluid, spanning rage to tenderness – which essentially creates its own set of conventions, as Shostakovich does in his "Babi Yar" Symphony.

Third, Lees has created an ingenious musical imagery, which springs from Sachs's texts. For me, the poem most central to the symphony appears first, "Someone blew the shofar." It describes the shofar – the ram's horn, a call to arms and a call to prayer – sounding out, even while the temple goes up in flames. The image speaks of both suffering and endurance. Of course, we hear fanfares from the orchestra – and not just from the brass, either – but more important, I believe, is Lees's extended use of solo violin – in his words, "the 'soul' instrument of Central and Eastern Europe." The violin comes to symbolize the persistence of Jewish culture, as the orchestra rages around it. Lees also uses a mezzo to deliver the poems, and the mezzo seems to me the cry of the individual – representative of the whole, but still individual. The imagery, of course, extends to specific musical figures, but these I think communicate directly with the listener and need no discussion from me.

The first movement – "Visitations," subtitled "Someone blew the shofar," purely instrumental – lasts as long as some symphonies, and, indeed, I can make out "movement" subdivisions, as opposed to classical sonata-allegro development, within. Whether Lees intended this, I don't know. The work begins with a profound tolling, beautifully, clearly orchestrated, and winding, nervous cries from the winds. The brass worry half-steps in chords, and the strings begin a spare, two-line dialogue, which turns out to bear most of the argument. All these elements continually recombine, until (about two-and-a-half minutes in), we reach our first climax on the brass idea. Lees works with this basic set of ideas throughout the movement, in a kind of perpetual variation of pitch, timbre, and rhythm. You never meet an idea in quite the same form twice. As I said, it's not really song, but a continual development and transformation of a small set of ideas. Through its course, we get a variety of moods, all somber, a few grotesque. It's the desolation that comes from looking over a battlefield from which the bodies have not yet been cleared. Yet, in the midst of it all, the woodwind cries and the persistent sounding of the brass imply the shofar. Whatever consolation the movement offers comes here. Toward the end, the violin solo takes up quasi-martial figures, but its softer color lends a different meaning than that given by the brass. It becomes a kind of meditation on the shofar. The opening material returns in the mode of a protest, which peters out, and the movement ends on the material of the string dialogue, this time spread among all the sections.

The movement "Manifestations" follows, beginning with a cello solo that seems to catch the martial-meditative mood of the first movement's violin solo. For me, this is one of the most beautiful passages in the entire work – noble, restrained. The orchestra breaks in immediately with tromping chords on and off the beat, fanfares sound, and the music rushes us to the first vocal solo, "Someone blew the shofar." None of Sachs's poems strike me as particularly easy to set – not merely from a structural point of view, but from an emotional one, free of cliche – and Lees comes up with something exciting and emotionally complex to boot. This music protests and defies. The instrumental argument continues the poetic imagery of peril and defiance, with again what sound to me like take-offs on the traditional shofar calls, insistent in both brass and winds. Gradually, the material transforms to that Lees will use for the second poem, "Footsteps." The main musical images is that of a falling minor third, which eventually shows up to set the word "footsteps." What strikes me as brilliant, rather than blatant, about it is that it hearkens back to the first two notes of the entire symphony – the tolling of deep bells – and probably indicates a complex inter-movement motific development, to be confirmed by a study of the score. The victim's death is prophesied only by the sound of footsteps, perhaps down the hall, coming nearer. The setting does repeat certain words – "footsteps" itself, "hunted," "blood" – and I commend the mezzo, Kimball Wheeler, for a convincing delivery that cuts through the orchestra and yet manages to shade meaning.

The third movement – "Transcendence" – begins with the most song-like passage in the entire symphony – a lullaby accompanied by an imaginative consort of sweet bells, which conjures up Eastern European Jewish folk music without explicit quotation. We also hear a "corkscrew" idea in mainly the strings, heard also in the second movement and that essentially a transformation of the main string idea of the first movement. This leads to a "marche grotesque," underneath the "footsteps" rhythm. For the movement to live up to its title, it must overcome the considerable acid in this opening. The solo violin appears with a bitter take on klezmer music. This time, the mezzo interrupts, in duet with the violin. The lullaby accompaniment returns and melts into solemn declamation, as the mezzo sings of remembrance. But we're pretty near the conclusion. When will we transcend? Indeed, the work does not end easily. The orchestra begins to churn again in a danse macabre Indeed, a simplistic resort to either glory or serenity would insult the victims. There's no vision of heaven. The messy feelings of outrage, sorrow, and peril mix with the solo violin's meditation, which comes down to a single note, supported by a held chord from the orchestra – the endurance of hope, the survival of the victims. The symphony will not allow us neither to forget nor to bury the dead in sentimentality. To me, it's the only ending possible – the slim hope that we will continue to remember and to care enough to act when it happens again.

The performers do an amazing job of advocacy with the first recording of an extremely complex score. Buswell is electric in his solos. Kimball Wheeler, as I've said, sings with great sensitivity. If I have any complaint at all, it's that I don't think her voice is quite big enough for the role. Kuchar not only has an orchestra playing on its mettle, he also has a firm grasp of structure. This, I repeat, is a work of subtle interrelationships. I would not have known that if Kuchar hadn't point it out. The composer (at the amazon.com web site) has expressed his very great pleasure in this performance, and no wonder. Nevertheless, for this symphony to really shine, it needs a lot of conductors making a run at it. We won't have the full measure of the work, until we get at least five first-rate recordings.

The sound is fine, a little bright, but all to serve clarity of texture. My heartfelt appreciation to Naxos on its American series.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet