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.
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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
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
student who somehow fitted his mouthpiece over the blowing end. Since
the instrument has no valves, pitch changes are brought about mainly
(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
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
Perera comes up with a panoply of radiant sounds from the chorus and
the instruments (string quartet and piano), but the music, beautiful
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
S.G.S. (July 2013)