A cantata commissioned by a Holocaust-related organization called Music of Remembrance, [is] based on the poetry of a Polish cabaret performer named Pola Braun, who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto (along with pianist Wladyslav Szpilman, whose story was told in the film
The Pianist) and, later, in the concentration camp at Majdanek, where she eventually perished while still in her early thirties. Pasatieri composed the work in 2003, and it had its premiere in Seattle in May 2004, with the same performers appearing here. Although it is scored for soprano and chamber ensemble, I refer to the work as a cantata, rather than a song cycle, because only six poems are set, with six additional sections that are purely instrumental,Read more the entirety totaling some 70 minutes. The instrumental ensemble comprises woodwind quartet, string quintet, trumpet, harp, and piano.
The style of the work is essentially the lyrical, unabashed neo-Romanticism that has been Pasatieri’s mode of expression all along, with little suggestion of Hebraic inflection, aside from the prevalent use of minor-key tonality. The song settings are spread unevenly throughout the work, so, for example, at one point there are three consecutive instrumental sections. These instrumental portions reflect motivic interrelationships with the vocal sections, and seem to be abstract elaborations of mood. The poems, sung in English translation, begin with reflections on the contempt in which Jews have been held, and move on to a nostalgic longing for home, and the universal suffering of mothers who lose their sons to violence; the work culminates in the dread of inevitable doom, the inconsequentiality of the individual in the face of mass annihilation, and the senseless refusal to give up hope.
Individually, the sections are quite appealing, displaying the composer’s characteristic insinuations of motifs into one’s consciousness—the five-minute Lento that precedes the final long section is an especially beautiful example. But taken as a whole, this very large work gives many indications of over-extension, so that the whole seems a good deal less than the sum of its parts. One has the impression of an attempt to turn one original concept into something else, and, without knowing much about the genesis of the work, one can only guess: for example, perhaps a request to turn what was originally a much shorter cycle of six songs into something larger, but without utilizing greater performing forces. In any case, a work of this dimension, and dealing with subject matter so extreme in its tragic brutality, would seem to require a deeper and broader range of expression. Instead, the work remains largely confined to a tone of mournful melancholia—more in keeping with romantic disappointment, say, than imminent genocide. I suppose that one might say in defense, we’ve had the large-scale treatment in movies like
Schindler’s List, The Sorrow and the Pity, and music like Pergament’s
The Jewish Song and some of the pieces actually composed in the concentration camps. This, one might argue, is more intimate—one woman’s reflections. But if so, this one woman exhibits a rather restricted emotional range.
The performance is generally quite good: The instrumentalists are largely members of the Seattle Symphony, and the participation of someone as distinguished as Jane Eaglen is a coup of which most composers can only dream. Yet, in truth, her huge voice at times overpowers the intimacy of the music and, at others, is even a bit harsh. Then there is the matter of Pasatieri’s orchestration, which many commentators—myself included—have considered the major weakness of his operas—a stridency that might be attributed to overly close spacing of harmony and the misguided use of the trumpet as a lyrical voice. But I think that Pasatieri’s apparent success as a commercial orchestrator can be taken as evidence that he knows what he is doing, and for some reason intends the orchestral effects he creates.
Letter to Warsaw can be seen as an ambitious if flawed entry of some significance in the gradually dwindling succession of traditionally neo-Romantic-styled works as we move further into the 21st century.