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CD Review

David Amram

Orchestral Music

  • Symphony – Songs of the Soul (1987) 1
  • Shir L'erev Shabbat (excerpts) (1965) 2
  • The Final Ingredient (excerpts) (1966) 3
1 Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Wilkins
2 Richard Troxell, tenor
1 Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ
2 BBC Singers/Kenneth Kiesler
3 University of Michigan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Kenneth Kiesler
Naxos 8.559420 63:12
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Feelin' genuinely groovy.

David Amram came up into brief prominence during the Fifties and Sixties and, I believe, deserved it. The music, fresh and substantive, also struck me as far more representative of the culture at large than the music of those who claimed to write "the music of our time" – mainly, the "hard" wing of contemporary music, neo-Webernian serialists and the like. While the latter continue to survive, mainly within grant organizations and the academy, figures like Amram and Schickele – quintessentially of the Sixties – can validly claim descendents in such figures as Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, and John Adams.

Amram's music swam in currents outside the usual musical streams. To the tonal-atonal debate, he was, though tonal, largely irrelevant. Like Leonard Bernstein, a musical omnivore, he worked with (not necessarily in the same piece) bop and post-bop jazz, vernacular American music, folk music from just about every corner of the world, all allied to a Stravinskian base. Everyone thinks of the Sixties, folk music, and acid rock, but – take it from somebody who lived through it – it was more of a cultural smorgasbord. One could take bits of this and that. In a typical LP collection of the period, for example, one could find Woody Guthrie, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Gregorian chant, Vaughan Williams, Jonathan Winters, Bach's Brandenburgs and Goldbergs, Balinese gamelan, Stravinsky's early ballets, and Renaissance choral music, both secular and sacred. Amram's music resembles that record collection. I believe he writes music that interests him, and he happens to have very wide interests. A good story: When the first ship bearing officially-sanctioned U.S. travelers pulled into Havana, Amram greeted them from the dock, playing flute with some local musicians.

Amram hooked me with a violin sonata and his Sabbath Service, neither of which, I believe, have received complete recordings. I caught them in a documentary on the composer, broadcast by something called "educational television" 'way back when. This sent me looking for other pieces. I've kept up with Amram. At one point, I even spent a very boring day with him. He was watching the fights; I needed an interview for the local paper. At one point, he rattled off some windbaggy garbage on the art of music, so I wrote an article which simply described that day (I'm told he hated the article, particularly when I compared him to my ancient father, but Amram was gracious about it). Anyway, I kept up with the music, if not with the composer. I even attended live performances of his jazz quintet and trio. Amram seems to write a lot, although you'd never know it from the few recordings he's received. At least one Shakespearean opera probably still lies around in manuscript. Some of his output strikes me as rather bland and not entirely free of the charge of Trendy. His scores based on American Indian music, for example, have pretty much bored me. On the other hand, there's great energy and wit in his Triple Concerto, Wind Quintet, and Shakespearian Concerto, as well as power in his King Lear Variations and Elegy for Violin and Orchestra.

This CD, part of the Milken Archives series on American Jewish music, focuses on Amram's "Jewish" works – early on, at any rate, a significant thread in his catalogue.

The most recent work on the program, the "Songs of the Soul" Symphony, although it takes its inspiration from Jewish sources, to me stands apart from his "Jewish" scores of forty to fifty years ago, both in intent and quality. Those earlier scores expressed not merely Judaism in the abstract, but something extremely personal. They allowed Amram to dig down into his soul, to speak with the voice of a prophet. Here, Judaism seems like just another stop on the cruise ship, a Jewish Escales, if you will. In three movements, we get the music of Jews in Ethiopia, Hassids in Central Europe, and, in the final movement, Yemen, the Mediterranean, and again Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. It's a pretty score, but one I find curiously empty. I recognize Amram's "we are the world" impulse behind it, but I simply don't care.

To feel the considerable difference between the symphony and Amram at his best, listen to the Shir L'erev Shabbat, known better in English as the Sabbath Evening Service. I say this as an insider: most Jewish liturgical music, outside of the traditional cantorial chants and excepting such composers as Bloch and Bernstein, is bloody awful. Indeed, It may well be one of the main reasons why I haven't set foot inside a temple in forty years. Several noble efforts have been made, notably the so-called Putterman commissions of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, to provide high-quality liturgical music from real, as opposed to church, composers. Those lucky enough to have received the award include Weill, Milhaud, Wolpe, Starer, Foss, Sowerby, and Diamond. Schoenberg, Bloch, and Stravinsky turned down the commission, as did Barber, Piston, Hindemith, and Schuman, among others. Amram completed his service in 1961 and premièred it the same year. As far as I know, a lot of really good music resulted from the series, and almost none of it is used. Amram made an eminently practical work: small forces playing music, though challenging, well within the capabilities of a "church choir." That Amram should also have also come up with a very beautiful work, whose interest doesn't dim with repetition, is in itself a minor miracle.

After all, "Jewish" concert music is a modern intellectual construct. The music of the Russian Orthodox church spawned some of it (especially its treatment of choral forces; traditional Jewish music doesn't include choirs), but its major source is probably Ernest Bloch and the Avodath Hakodesh, or Sacred Service. To appreciate Bloch's achievement, just compare Max Bruch's Kol Nidre with Bloch's Schelomo. Bloch's influence has been both constricting and liberating, tempting many to naked imitation and inspiring others to find themselves in old traditions. Dessau, Weill, Wolpe, Bernstein, Foss, Schoenberg, Milhaud, and Amram fall into the latter group. Amram handles an epic voice in a small space. For me, the main source of its beauty lies in the harmonies, gorgeous and unpredictable and fully expressive of the text. Someone really ought to record the whole thing. For that matter, Amram should orchestrate it.

I actually saw the ABC broadcast of Amram's opera The Final Ingredient in 1965. Though short, it's a wonderful opera – I think one of the best of the postwar period, although in very conservative idiom. Arnold Weinstein created the libretto from, I believe, a TV play by Reginald Rose, one of the leading lights of the so-called Golden Age of Television. Best known as William Bolcom's collaborator and a terrific poet, Weinstein wrote Bolcom's Cabaret Songs and Dynamite Tonight!. The Final Ingredient concerns Jewish concentration-camp prisoners who decide to secretly hold the ritual Passover meal, the seder, and begin to assemble the "ingredients." On the list is an egg, symbol of life. A bird's nest has been spotted just outside the fence, and one of their number, a non-believing Jew, is finally persuaded to get the egg. He is killed by the guards as he returns, but he does manage to deliver the egg. There's a horrible irony here, but also a great hope. I'm normally quite dry-eyed in the presence of most Holocaust works, because – despite, I'm sure, the authors' intent – the art falls far short of the history. Not here. The opera at times is so beautiful, your heart breaks, and the CD has some of the best scenes: the women prisoners singing the "songs of Zion" in a strange land; the celebration of the seder and the finale. Again, much of the charge of the music comes from Amram's choral writing. He really ought to do more of it.

The performances range from the good to the exceptional. I'm not sure whether any performance could imbue the symphony with substance, but the Sabbath Evening Service shines under Kiesler, the BBC Singers, Bowers-Broadbent, and Troxler taking on the cantor part. The opera is to a great extent carried on by students, but you'd never know it. They sound good and, even more important, they can act. All in all, recommended.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz