Notes and Editorial Reviews
The present CD—number 39 in the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music project—contains four works by Memphis-born composer Judith Lang Zaimont. Prior to receiving this disc for review, I’d heard not a single note of her music, though she has written nearly 100 works, is recognized internationally, has received numerous awards and commissions, and has amassed quite a respectable discography. A list of her honoraria is simply too long to cite here, but several Web sites devoted to her bio and works can be found by Googling her name.
With Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening, Zaimont joins a parade of composers—Milhaud, Berlinski, Amram, to name just three—commissioned by synagogues and choral societies to set the Sabbath eve
and Sabbath day liturgies. Zaimont’s contribution to the genre was commissioned in 1976 by the Great Neck Choral Society of New York. A total of six excerpts are heard here: “The Lord Reigneth,” “God and Father,” “Why Do We Deal Treacherously?”, “O Lord, How Can We Know Thee?”, “Sh’ma Yisrae’el,” and “Thou Shalt Love the Lord.” From these excerpts, one gets a good sampling of this large-scaled choral-orchestral work with vocal soloist. It is in a basically neo-Romantic, dramatico-declamatory style that occasionally reminded me of Britten. Effective though it is on its surface, it somehow failed to draw me in on an emotional level. All of the numbers, except for the “Sh’ma Yisrae’el,” are sung in English. The Berlin Rundfunk under Gerard Schwarz plays beautifully, but baritone James Maddalena needs to get his vibrato under control.
There are surely references in Orthodox Judaism to the roles and duties of the womenfolk that modern, progressive-thinking men and women, Jew and non-Jew alike, are apt to find politically incorrect, but A Woman of Valor is not one of them. A poem from the Book of Proverbs that is traditionally sung at the table before the Sabbath evening meal, it celebrates the preciousness of a virtuous woman as one who is to be honored and revered. I just wish I could revere Zaimont’s setting of it, which she describes as a tone poem for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. Whether Zaimont did intend the role for a mezzo, it is sung here by a soprano, Margaret Kohler. She performs her womanly duty with great nobility against a loosely atonal backdrop in the string parts, an instrumental conception that seems both out of character and at odds with the more lyrical vocal line and tenor of the text.
When it comes to Parable: A Tale of Abram and Isaac, I have a bone to pick with Ms. Zaimont regarding her title. The text she sets is, of course, the well-known Biblical narrative of the binding of Isaac set out in Genesis 22:1–19. By the time we reach this chapter, however, Abram has long since become Abraham. The addition of the “ha” to his name is significant, and occurs precisely at Genesis 17:5, where Abram has accepted God’s covenant (i.e., the rite of circumcision), and God says to him, “Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.” The tableau in which Abraham is commanded to lead his son Isaac to the sacrificial altar—one of the most deeply perplexing in the whole of the Old Testament—occurs years later. Zaimont’s title is a textual neologism, and it is Biblically incorrect. I was surprised that the usually punctilious Neil Levin did not mention this, but perhaps as the project winds down he is running out of steam.
Zaimont’s musical setting, however, is entirely appropriate. Scored for three vocal soloists, a speaker, harpsichord, instrumental ensemble, and choir, the unfolding is urgent and terrifying. It brought to mind associations of Schubert’s Die Erlkönig, not in style of course, but in the mounting tension between father and son, and in the early role of the Angel in pressing Abraham onward. The Biblical story, unlike Schubert’s doomed night ride, has a happy ending, at least for father and son. The ram, I’m guessing, would have a different take on it.
Glockenspiel and tubular bells provide the sparse, one might say austere, accompaniment to Zaimont’s Meditations at the Time of the New Year. Predominantly quiet and intimate, the two pieces, “Dawn” and “Hope” are settings of reflective texts that often supplement the Reform High Holiday services.
With the above noted exception of Maddalena’s vibrato in Sacred Service, performances are all praiseworthy, with special commendation to the Choral Society of Southern California, which is beautifully balanced and blended in Meditations.
Overall, I would not rate this release as highly as I have some others in the Milken Archive project; still, two out of four ain’t bad. I liked Parable and Meditations. Sacred Service didn’t do much for me, and as for A Woman of Valor, discretion is the better part of my opinion. Most important though, this CD has definitely piqued my interest and whetted my appetite to hear more of Judith Lang Zaimont’s music.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Milken Archive Series at ArkivMusic.
Works on This Recording
Parable - A Tale of Abraham and Isaac by Judith Lang Zaimont
Frances Lucey (Soprano),
John Aler (Tenor),
Randall Scarlata (Baritone)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1985; USA
Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening by Judith Lang Zaimont
James Maddalena (Baritone)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Ernst Senff Choir
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1976; USA
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