WYNER: The Mirror (1972-73). Passover Offering (1959). Tants un Maysele (1981).
Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Carol Wincenc, flute; Daniel Stepner, violin; Ronald Thomas, cello; James Guttman, double bass; Bruce Creditor, clarinet; Jennifer Langham, cello; David Taylor, bass trombone; Robert Schulz, percussion; Carol Meyer, soprano; Judi Brown Kirchner, mezzo-soprano; Matthew Kirchner, tenor; Richard Lalli, baritone; Yehudi Wyner, piano.
NAXOS 8.559423 (B) {DDD} TT: 58:07

Songs my father taught me. Yehudi Wyner comes from a musical family. His dad, Lazar Weiner (who changed his children's names, but not his own), was a choral conductor and a composer himself and is regarded by many as the father of Yiddish art song. Wyner studied with a host of lights at Yale and Harvard, including Hindemith, Richard Donovan, Randall Thompson, and Walter Piston. An enthusiastic advocate of new music, even other than his own, he has served as a composing power of sorts and teacher in the Boston area for years. Yet, I doubt many classical-music listeners have heard his name before.

Some of Wyner's music I can leave alone. Some I like quite a bit. In both cases, the works show what one writer has dubbed "a surplus of musicality." That is, even though I may not like a certain piece, I have to admit it's not routine or shoddy, and there's almost always some imaginative stroke that surprises me. Furthermore, Wyner exhibits great range of expression and idiom. Some of his pieces graciously let a listener in; others brandish spines. He can go from the folk-like to an idiom very much like Berg's (a composer I don't care for, excepting Lulu). The works here lie closer to "easy" rather than to "hard." All that said, Wyner's range to some extent works against him. He does so many styles well that one can't get a fix on his artistic personality. I suspect not many can recognize a Wyner composition they haven't heard before.

The big work for me here is Wyner's incidental music to The Mirror, Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer's first play. It's the usual Singer mix of sexual repression and fantasy, demons, and the suffocating life of the shtetl. Wyner comes up with an ensemble suggestive of klezmer (clarinet, violin, bass, percussion, and singers), with satiric strains reminiscent of Robert Kurka's Schweik music thrown in. Wyner's compositional imagination works on high here. For one thing, as befits the economics of the theater, the score requires only four instrumentalists. Yet Wyner never resorts to a real "fill-in" instrument, like a keyboard, although violin and bass might double-stop. Nevertheless, the music often sounds satisfyingly full, a tribute to his craft as well as to his poetry. Wyner makes a big deal of the collected music not being a "real" suite, but that just shows an excess of conscience, as far as I'm concerned. Every number gets its grip on you. I especially liked the "Flight" music, largely a duet between melody instruments. Yet you never think the composer has short-changed you. I also like the wedding song -- beautiful and tender. Wyner, married to a virtuoso singer, certainly knows how to write for voice. The song is a honey.

Ann Arbor has been a town mad for new music, with a very eclectic range. The composers Ross Lee Finney, William Bolcom, and William Albright taught at the university. Contemporary concerts draw unusually large audiences. I heard my first Steve Reich pieces there in a graduate English class, of all places, and participated in a performance of Cage's piece for 13 radios -- what a blast! In the late Fifties, WUOM, the enterprising university radio station, commissioned several composers for works related to national or religious holidays. Wyner chose to write Passover Offering, the Jewish holiday of liberation. Again, Wyner comes up with an unusual ensemble -- flute, clarinet, trombone, and bass -- and makes it work. The idiom, as you may guess, suggests Jewish cantorial singing and shofar music (the ceremonial ram's horn symbolized by the trombone). Parts of it reminded me of Bernstein's Dybbuk, although Wyner wrote over a decade earlier. The work falls into four movements: Lento (Oppression, Enslavement), Energico (Uprising, Plague, Exodus by Sea), Alla Marcia (A Desert March), Grave (Despair, Hope), and Quieto (Silent Prayer, The Promised Land). The subtitles may initially help some get a fix on the emotional temperature of the music, but they're not strictly necessary. This is a work of large Romantic sensibility, with a "narrative" very easily followed. Wyner has called it "a mixture of a type of Stravinsky's neoclassicism with the approach of Alban Berg," and one can see his point. That is, the textures and structures are song-like or dance-like, while the sensibility is both a bit off-balance and on edge. The Mirror expresses itself more directly, but Passover Offering plumbs more deeply.

Tants un Maysele ("dance and little story"), in two movements, does exactly what it says. The first movement dances in a Rite-of-Springy way. The second movement sings. Wyner made up the tunes, but based them on melodies he's known all his life. Despite the title of the second movement, there's no obvious program. I really like the dance, not least because I like rhythmic music. The maysele for me goes on a little too long, though it has some very beautiful, rather melancholy moments.

Congratulations to Naxos and their Milken Archive series, devoted to music by American Jewish composers. They cover a wide range of idioms in mainly very good performances, not excepting these. Wyner's music isn't easy, but the players and singers not only get the notes, they make music. The recorded sound is quite fine.

S.G.S. (September 2004)