Celebrating its 25th birthday in 2018, The Czech National Symphony Orchestra (CNSO) has gained a position among Europe’s top symphonic ensembles. Renowned for its versatility, the orchestra annually [...]
New Jewish Music, Vol. 1 - Azrieli Music Prizes
They spoke about it
Brian Current : The Seven Heavenly Halls
Canadian composer Brian Current’s The Seven Heavenly Halls is the result of his being declared winner of the inaugural Azrieli Commission in September 2015. The work premiered on October 19, 2016 at the Maison symphonique by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal with tenor Frederic Antoun as soloist and Kent Nagano conducting.
Composer Brian Current describes The Seven Heavenly Halls thus: “I became interested in the Zohar (the Book of Enlightenment) while researching texts for The River of Light, a large-scale multi-movement oratorio for choir, orchestra, and soloists. The name of the cycle comes from Dante’s Paradiso, where the Pilgrim enters the glowing core of heaven and declares, And I saw a light in the form of a river, radiant as gold, between banks painted with wondrous springs. My frequent collaborator and librettist Anton Piatigorsky introduced me to the Zohar (attributed to Rabbi Moses de Leon [1250–1305]), which he described as the most central book in the Kabbalah and the most mysterious of Jewish mystical texts. I immediately heard turbulent and gestural music full of orchestral colours.
“Even more inspiring and brimming with musical possibilities was the Zohar’s reference to The Seven Heavenly Halls, a series of ecstatic stages where each vision is marked by a different colour. After passing through each of the coloured halls, a mystical traveller will, much like Dante’s Pilgrim, enter a seventh and ‘colourless’ state: not white, not black, not red, not green, no colour at all. When a band spanned, it yielded radiant colours. I envisioned a piece made up of seven ecstatic stages represented by different musical colours and textures. With the addition of three introductory movements, the piece is divided into ten sections, to be performed with little or no pause between them.
“Throughout, the tenor soloist acts as both our guide through The Heavenly Halls and our medium into the texts of the Zohar. In calmer moments he sings in a style resembling cantillation, using scales based on the traditional Ahavah Rabbah, Magein Avot, and Adonai Malach modes. The chorus, on the other hand, is envisioned as myriad voices within the texture of the orchestra so that the music is layered with the sounds of the traditional Sefirot: keter, binah, chochmah, da’at, chesed, gevurah, tiferet, hod, netzach, yesod, and malchut. “The Seven Heavenly Halls forms Part I of The River of Light, a large-scale multi-movement cycle for choir, orchestra, and soloists. Made up of seven separate pieces, The River of Light is about transcendence and is based on the texts of several traditions (Hindu, Christian, Jewish, First Nations, Canadian, Sufi, Maori, and Chinese) that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.
“Many thanks to Anton Piatigorksy for adapting the texts, to Yehoshua Rosenthal in Jerusalem for translating them, and to the scholars Daniel Matt (UC Berkeley), Nathan Wolski (Monash University), andArthur Haberman (York University) for help interpreting them.”
Download Anton Piatgorsky’s libretto for The Seven Heavenly Halls:
Wlad Marhulets : Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet
“Klezmer music came crashing into my life when, as a 16-year-old living in Gdansk, Poland, my brother Damian brought home a CD by a band called Klezmer Madness, featuring the clarinetist David Krakauer. This was music that was so boldly Jewish, so full of wild energy that a kind of madness enveloped my senses as I listened to it… I decided to become a musician on the spot.”
So began composer Wlad Marhulets’s lifelong fascination with the folk music of his Jewish heritage, along with his determination to bring that music to light on a wider stage. Five years later, while he was studying in New York City, Marhulets and Krakauer finally met. The result was the Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet, first performed in 2009 by Krakauer and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under conductor Andrew Litton. A composite style of music derived from the Ashkenazi Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe, klezmer (kli-zemer: literally, vessel of music) was largely unwritten, tending to adapt and mould to local contexts as required. The music of the klezmorim was usually celebratory in function, often heard at weddings and other special occasions. Instrumentation was rarely fixed. In keeping with its flexible tradition, the 20th century American klezmer revival assimilated elements of jazz, funk, and even hip hop. Marhulets follows suit, infusing his polystylistic work with contemporary genres, while further adapting the form for the symphonic medium.
The energetic first movement immediately highlights the clarinet’s virtuosic potential through multiple trills and a specialized style of “bent” notes meant to evoke the human voice. A perpetually mobile orchestral accompaniment maintains rhythmic stability, while the clarinet persistently emphasizes offbeats, and an electric bass guitar hints at elements of funk. The second movement begins with a solo clarinet cadenza. Discreet strings create a haunting echo effect and lead to the hazy entrance of the full orchestra in this sepia-hued, nigun-style lament. A second solo cadenza plunges without pause into the third movement, in which a singular obsessive motive is repeated, transformed, and recycled to its exhaustive and virtuosic conclusion, bringing the concerto to a brisk close.
Lukas Foss : Song of Songs
Although born in Berlin (as Lukas Fuchs), Lukas Foss has long been recognized as one of the most accomplished, versatile, and respected figures in American musical life, primarily as a composer, but also as a conductor, teacher, pianist, champion of contemporary music, and all-around spokesman for his art.
Foss’s family fled Nazi Germany in 1933, moving first to Paris for four years, then settling in the United States, where Lukas became a US citizen in 1942. Upon arriving in the US in 1937 he enrolled, at the age of 15, in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his teachers included Fritz Reiner (conducting), Isabelle Vengerova (piano), and Rosario Scalero and Randall Thompson (composition). At 18, when most students are just entering institutions of higher learning, Foss already had graduated with honours from Curtis. He continued his training with Paul Hindemith at Yale University and with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood as a member of the first class at the Berkshire Music Center. Foss saw his first composition published by G. Schirmer at the age of 15, won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1945 (the youngest composer ever to receive this prestigious award), and succeeded composer Arnold Schoenberg at the University of California in Los Angeles for his first academic appointment in 1953. He began teaching at Boston University in 1991.
In a career spanning over 60 years, Foss embraced an eclectic range of compositional styles, mediums, and-isms, ranging from neo-Baroque to experimental works. Thomas Clark, writing in Contemporary Composers, summarizes Foss’s compositional career by noting that “each work is colorful, dramatic, rich in detail, unique in character and singular in focus.”
This description richly applies to Song of Songs, composed in 1946–1947, when Foss was in his mid-20s, and premiered by none other than the Boston Symphony on March 7, 1947 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting and soprano Ellabelle Davis as soloist. Koussevitzky thought so highly of the work that he conducted it eight times in nine days in six cities. Shortly thereafter it was recorded by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting and mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel as soloist. The work is subtitled “Biblical Suite for Soprano (or Mezzo) and Orchestra.” The brief texts come from the Song of Solomon from the King James version of the Bible. Song of Songs won the prestigious Naumburg Prize in 1957. This work derives from Foss’s early period, when he was writing in a mostly neo-classic style, reflecting his love for the music of Bach and Stravinsky. It was the second of Foss’s two Biblical cantatas (it was preceded by The Song of Anguish in 1945, also premiered by the Boston Symphony).
The 25-minute work is divided into four sections. First comes a short instrumental introduction in quasi-fugal style, after which the voice enters. The second section is a da-capo aria (return to the beginning) brimming with joy and featuring numerous solos for woodwind instruments. Next is a troubled recitative with acrid harmony, capped by a virtuosic orchestral postlude. The final section arrives without pause, taking on the nature of a fervent prayer set to a measured pace and ending with the words “love is strong as death.”
Program notes: Marc Wieser (Current & Marhulets), Robert Markow (Foss)
The Azrieli Music Prize (AMP)
Conceived by Dr. Sharon Azrieli for the Azrieli Foundation, these two prizes were established in 2014 to offer opportunities for the creation, performance and celebration of high quality new Jewish music. The Azrieli Prize of $50,000 is awarded biennially to a composer who has written the best new major work of Jewish music, while the Azrieli Commission encourages creative and critical engagement with the question “What is Jewish music?” A commissioning fee of $50,000 is awarded biennially to the composer who proposes a response to this question that displays the utmost creativity, artistry and musical excellence. Both prizes are fully open to composers of any nationality, faith, background or affiliation. The winning scores and proposals are selected by an international panel of experts in the field of music creation, performance, and research.
Further aims of AMP are to educate the general public about the universal appeal and artistic importance of Jewish music, whether through live performance, recording, composer talks, panel discussions or other related programming.
Learn more about the Azrieli Music Prizes at www.azrielifoundation.org