Moving Array of Music with Holocaust Associations

United StatesUnited States  Laks, Haas, Heggie, and arrangements by Ullmann: Music of Remembrance: soloists, Northwest Boychoir, Joseph Crnko (conductor), Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 14.5.2012 (BJ)

Almost exactly five years since composer Jake Heggie’s and librettist Gene Scheer’s last Music of Remembrance commission was premiered, their new collaborative work, Another Sunrise, had its first hearing. Reviewing For a Look or a Touch back in 2007, I found myself with mixed feelings. While, as I said at the time, “extremely well crafted and often moving,” that one-act piece of chamber-scale music drama suffered from problems in both its musical and its dramatic aspects. I didn’t think of myself after that as a Heggie fan—so I am all the more pleased to be able to say that Another Sunrise marks a very considerable step forward in the quality of his and Scheer’s collaborative work.

There were certainly beautiful passages in the earlier piece, but the most striking of them were too much like familiar elements in the work of such predecessors as Richard Strauss. But if such inspirations risked being called “something borrowed,” the corresponding beauties of the new piece may justly be hailed as “something new.” It tells the highly dramatic story of Holocaust survivor Krystyna Żywulska (whose son, Tadeusz Andrzejewski, came from his home in Paris for the premiere), and tells it by way of a well-written narrative by Scheer. This was sung with compelling intensity by Caitlin Lynch, who, if she can develop a more perfectly focused production of her already attractive soprano voice, may well be destined for a major career. She was supported by skillful and enthusiastic contributions from Laura DeLuca on clarinet, Mikhail Schmidt on violin, Walter Gray on cello, Jonathan Green on double bass, and Craig Sheppard on piano, and the total impression was indeed strikingly beautiful: Heggie’s vocal line is founded essentially on conjunct motion, so that the occasional wide skip is much more effective than wide intervals can be when they are too persistently used.

The first half of the concert included a Suite for Oboe and Piano by Pavel Haas, finely played by Benjamin Hausmann and Mina Miller, founder and director of this Seattle organization dedicated to “ensuring that the voices of musical witness be heard.” Before intermission we also heard an entertaining sequence of Yiddish and Hebrew songs arranged by Viktor Ullmann, and lustily delivered by Joseph Crnko’s Northwest Boychoir.

But for me the “sleeper” of the evening’s first half was the String Quartet No. 3 by Szymon Laks, who was born in Warsaw in 1901 and, after spending three years in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, survived to continue composing and died in Paris in 1983. Dating from 1945, this is a most charming and expertly written piece, and clearly the work of a gifted composer. Though subtitled “on Polish folk melodies,” his quartet is entirely free from the sluggishness of motion that sometimes bedevils folk-derived music. Indeed, its strength and variety of harmonic pulse were exactly what seemed lacking in the far better-known Haas’s suite, which seemed to proceed at the same easy-going pace throughout, despite frequent yet ultimately unproductive changes in note-values.

The quartet’s virtues were vividly realized by violinists Mikhail Schmidt and Leonid Keylin, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, and cellist Mara Finkelstein. I had never heard of Laks before, but I shall certainly investigate his output further. If it contains other works of comparable quality, he surely deserves to be more widely known and performed.

Bernard Jacobson