“Borderline ugly” Golijov piece still scores big

Yiddishbuk is quite possibly the best piece of Holocaust memorial music ever made

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“Welcome to the world’s greatest place to hear music,” cried Geoff Nuttall after he bounded onto the Dock Street stage to introduce his incredibly varied and generous third festival program. Then, to set the scene for the afternoon’s first selection, he confessed (head hung low) to his personal “addiction”: namely his helpless compulsion — ever since his early youth — for hoarding old analog LP recordings (around 15,000 of them, at last count). And among them, one of his long-standing faves is his LP of the deep and shimmering Requiem by the twentieth-century French composer Maurice Duruflé.

Duruflé was an compulsively finicky perfectionist when it came to his music: he destroyed most of what he wrote. The remaining handful of published compositions, mostly choral and organ music, fills up maybe three CDs, max. And every work he left us is a masterpiece. But Geoff was never aware (neither was I) that the young Duruflé, at age 26, had also composed Prelude, Recitatif et Variations : a remarkable chamber piece for flute (Tara Helen O’Connor), viola (Carolyn Blackwell) and piano (Anne-Marie McDermott). O’Connor brought the piece to Geoff’s attention, piquing his interest by describing it as a blend of “sensuous and psychotic.” Well, I don’t know about the psychotic part, though I certainly heard some passages of dark, intensely neurotic agitation. But those were interspersed among prevailing episodes of sweet and dreamy lyricism, suggesting a blend of Fauré and Debussy. It was a remarkably effective piece, beautifully played — and it stands as my number-one musical discovery in this series thus far. I wonder if there’s a good recording (hint, wink, hint, Geoff)?

Next up — glory be — was an old and cherished musical friend: the last of Ludwig van Beethoven’s five wonderful sonatas for cello and piano. This is fairly advanced Beethoven: poor Ludwig had been stone-deaf for some time by the time he wrote it (1815), and his health was taking a nosedive. Thus this heady, emotionally intense music presages works like his ultra-profound and cosmically cerebral late piano sonatas and string quartets: the end result of composing in a total sonic vacuum. As Geoff described it, “It’s not sing-along music.” The opening movement is fairly typical, alternating between brusque drama and radiant lyricism; the finale is a dandy, upbeat fugue with some brain-teasing complexities thrown in.

But the work’s throbbing heart lies in the central Adagio movement: a searing threnody of quiet sadness and resignation. And cellist Alisa Weilerstein gave it the finest interpretation I’ve ever heard, bar none. She played with wondrous delicacy, often at diaphanous, nearly inaudible pianissimos — yet she never stopped radiating the music’s naked emotion. And pianist Pedja Muzijevic was right with her every step of the way, supporting and enhancing the music’s every mood and nuance. And, yes, they made me cry: something that happens to me quite often when Alisa’s onstage.

Well, that’s one way of expressing negative emotions. But the next piece — Yiddishbuk — by Osvaldo Golijov, deals with subjects like agony, grief and remembrance in entirely different ways. Geoff described it as being,in places, “borderline ugly.” I’ll take that a step further: it got so ugly and violent, it made my skin crawl. It was by turns haunting, horrific, and hard on both the ears and the soul. But then you’ve got to consider what inspired it: among other things, the agony of the Jewish people in the century past, mostly at the hands of Nazi Germany. The theme that kept resonating in my mind was the composer’s commemoration of three children who perished at the Terezin death camp, whose poems and drawings are preserved in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Check out the full story behind the music right here.

Originally written for and recorded by our very own St Lawrence String Quartet, Golijov surely meant for the music to smack his listeners upside the head, and hard — while leaving no doubt in their minds that this is entirely Jewish music, employing classic Hebrew modes and idiomatic style. He likewise meant for it to grate on our ears, with its shrieking sonorities, shattering dissonance and choked glissando phrases. He called for just about every bowing technique in the book, in order to achieve the work’s amazing range of startling sounds and effects: like “col legno,” or striking the strings with the wooden part of the bow. Thus — as the SLSQ tore into the piece with terrible purpose — it was no surprise that the shocked audience cringed and cowered their way through the music: you could sense their huge collective sigh of shell-shocked relief when it was over.

I buttonholed quite a few audience members on the way out afterward, including several greybeards, and not a single one of them badmouthed it. As one of them told me, “It was a revolting listening experience, yet it was some of the most effective modern music I’ve ever heard. I’ll never, ever, forget it.” Thank you, sir — 'cause Osvaldo doesn’t want you to forget it — nor the inhuman terror that gave rise to it. I don’t hesitate to call it the single most effective piece of Holocaust memorial music we have — and there’s quite a bit of it out there. You simply can’t sugarcoat ugly history, especially not in music. Was it a coincidence that we heard it on Memorial Day?

Whew! It’s a good thing the concert wasn’t over yet. Most of that day’s musicians — plus three fresh faces — returned to restore order and calm us down with a beguiling arrangement for nine instruments (by clarinet whiz Todd Palmer) of Carl Maria von Weber’s popular Invitation to the Dance, a delightfully perky waltz-fantasia that started out as a piano piece. Every player got a chance to shine in brief solos, and they succeeded in sending us out into Church Street’s pleasant sunshine afterwards with relieved smiles on our faces.

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