HORVIT: The Mystic Flame - A Choral Symphony
Twyla Whittaker, soprano; Katherine Ciesinski, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Evans, tenor; Richard Paul Fink, bass-baritone; Moores School Symphony Orchestra and Festival Chorus/Franz Anton Krager, cond.
ALBANY TROY 533 (F) (DDD) TT:  67:44
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A good heart. I sing in four different choirs (my evenings are pretty much booked). I've actually sung music by Michael Horvit: A Child's Journey and Even When God is Silent. They lie well within the capabilities of the volunteer groups I belong to, and they're beautiful besides. Both essentially about the Holocaust, they have an elegant restraint to them, getting a lot from a few, right notes. The Mystic Flame has greater ambitions and, as far as I'm concerned, far more problems.

First, the good news. Horvit —who studied with Piston, Foss, and Copland, among others—has the necessary craft to write a large work. A three-minute piece is one thing, an eight-minute movement something else. However, I can't call The Mystic Flame a success, despite some lovely things. First, although one hears themes reused and varied, this is no symphony, but a suite of nineteen choral pieces. No "movement" (that is, group of choral pieces) moves symphonically, in the sense of presenting a thematic argument. We really have a bunch of brief, self-contained musical units. It's something to remark upon, only because Horvit has made a point of it in his subtitle. He can call it whatever he wants, as far as I'm concerned. The more important question remains the quality of the pieces themselves.

The work has ambition, but it overreaches. The Holocaust, like war in general, is one of the big artistic subjects, one which few artists do justice to. One's heart may be in the right place, but that doesn't guarantee a great work. The Horvit is no Tippett Child of Our Time, Shostakovich Babi Yar, Britten War Requiem, or Lees "Memorial Candles" Symphony. In spite of Horvit's sincerity and craft, The Mystic Flame fails to convince. I'll talk about, for me, the main reason.

Either Horvit has no idea what makes a good text to set to music, or he can't overcome the limitations of a text he knows to be, in the usual way of things, unsuitable. It's not that the texts are necessarily bad in themselves (although there are some pretty hokey things here, including something from my former rabbi), but that they don't move in a way conducive to a musical setting. Many of the pieces are prose and, like a lot of prose, construct arguments. Music, on the other hand, tends to work best with images. It seems to me awfully difficult to get musical gold from a passage like the following (from the final movement):

The history of every people fixes its eye upon a particular moment in which its qualities and attributes shine forth with special radiance. No one can doubt that it was just such an incandescent moment that has been kindled in the life of the Jewish people.

This may be eloquent prose, but it's a lawyer's eloquence, not a poet's. It moves like the political speech it is (Abba Eban on the establishment of Israel). The music also moves in the same prosaic way. Horvit gets almost none of the prose sections to work - not the excerpts from Niemoller, Anne Frank, Howard Samuels, Sartre, Gorky, Herzl, Brandeis, and so on. Listening to these sections is like listening to me singing this review. The music goes along evenly, without ever rising to some sort of occasion. The most expressive sections all have words by poets: Emma Lazarus, Itzik Manger, Nelly Sachs, and a stunning setting of the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead, the Kaddish.

The performance is good enough. I doubt a "star" contingent would make a significantly greater effect. Too much of the music is just too bland. However, the soloists in particular are fine, especially Whittaker and Ciesinski. A slight case of vocal fatigue seems to have touched the tenor, Evans. Richard Paul Fink, the bass-baritone, despite an overly-hard edge to his voice and rough way with a musical line, nevertheless communicates.

S.G.S. (January 2003)