Awakenings. STERN: Shofar. PERERA: Why I Wake Early.
Teresa Wakim (soprano); Jason McStoots (tenor); David Kravitz (bass); Donald Wilkinson (bass); Joanna Naylor (soprano); Leah Souder (mezzo); Brian Abascal (tenor); Kevin Verrette (bass); Coro Allegro/David Hodgkins.
Navona Records NV5878 TT: 62:06.

Honorable misses. I should like these pieces more. Robert Stern has written powerful, stirring music, Ronald Perera an ecstatic, lyrical, and superbly-crafted score. My beef lies exclusively with the texts. Normally, I don't care about weak libretti. After all, most of the standard operas and many great songs by Schubert and Brahms set embarrassing texts. The music carries the day.

For me, obviously not here. Catherine Madsen supplied the Shofar libretto. The shofar is, of course, the ceremonial ram's horn blown during the Rosh Hashanah service. In my temple, it was usually assigned to a good trumpet student who somehow fitted his mouthpiece over the blowing end. Since the instrument has no valves, pitch changes are brought about mainly by embouchure (the pressure of the lips upon the mouthpiece) and are confined mainly to natural harmonics. Four musical elements in various combinations comprise the ritual shofar calls: tekiah (a low sound followed by an abrupt higher one, roughly a fifth or diminished fifth apart); teruah (a trill between two tekiahs); shevarim (three connected short notes); tekiah g'dolah (the "great tekiah," the final call, the tekiah held for a long time). The literal meaning of these terms derive from the words for "call," "shout," and "shatterings," respectively. The terms also have ritual meanings: wholeness, brokenness, contrition, and reconciliation. This is the structure of the four-movement Shofar, each movement (played without a break) titled by the respective shofar call. Stern actually weaves in the calls as motives throughout. The main narrative is that of Moses receiving the tablets of the law on Mt. Sinai and the golden calf and its aftermath. So far, no harm, really. However, I never could answer for myself why either Stern or Madsen wanted to tell the story or what they thought I should get out of it. Actually, I do know. It's in general an attempt to figure out what to do in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but other than a generic recommitment to Judaism, there's really no new awareness worth mentioning. Or so it seems to me.

As for Perera's choral suite, again, my problem is with the texts. The widely-admired Mary Oliver is simply not my cup of tea. She's a wonderful artisan and a weak poet. In "I Looked Up," the speaker sees a red-winged bird in the pines taking off, "the wings enormous and opulent, / and, as I said, wreathed in fire." The words are beautifully chosen, and the pause of "as I said" so placed, a masterful shaping of rhythm. There's at least one striking image in each poem -- a "blacksnake / pours himself swift and heavy / into the ground" during a rainstorm, for example. Her main theme in the poems Perera has chosen is an ecstasy in the presence of nature, but I find her poems way too easy, with little lingering in my head after I read the poem. When I compare her work to poems by Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, I get little from it other than she likes nature. There's no echo from beyond the poem itself. Perera sets words as well as anybody. Each syllable seems to find its perfect note. Perera comes up with a panoply of radiant sounds from the chorus and the instruments (string quartet and piano), but the music, beautiful as it is, doesn't lift the poetry.

You can regard this as a very personal reaction. Coro Allegro, led by David Hodgkins, sings very well. My one quibble is the choral tone, which seems a bit weak. However, the group delivers fine performances of both scores. Hodgkins make a great case. The Stern, the tougher work, requires a superior choir and appropriately receives the more focused performance. Perera's is one that will be within the capabilities of intermediate choirs. Furthermore, Navona Records does its usual of providing the music on an extra-goodies CD. If you insert it into your computer's disk drive, you have access to extended liner notes, composer interviews, and the full score to Shofar. I love Navona's practice. It gives the listener the opportunity to really know the music and allows even those who don't read music a deeper way in.

S.G.S. (July 2013)