Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia: Metamorphosis
By Joshua Rosenblum
In Jewish legend, golem is a human-like figure created from mud or clay and brought to life through a mystical ritual. Realistic in appearance but lacking a soul, a golem can prove dangerous in its single-minded attempts to follow orders. Andrea Clearfield’s The Golem Psalms, with a text by Ellen Frankel, tells of the Golem of Prague, whose creator, the rabbi Judah Loew, eventually had to “uncreate” it by performing the ritual incantations in reverse. The ceremonially significant number seven gives Clearfield’s piece some of its structure: it’s divided into seven sections, and there are passages in 7/8 meter as well as seven-note melodic figures. In general, the work is vivid and galvanizing, with rhythmic sections that have the drum-driven propulsiveness of rock and incantatory choral chanting that give it a Biblical grandeur. In the central fourth movement, the lengthiest of the seven, Clearfield achieves a timeless beauty with hushed and euphonious choral writing. Clearfield is a natural musical dramatist, and this is an exciting choral-orchestral showpiece. Sanford Sylvan appears periodically as the solo voice of the golem, deploying his resonant baritone with clarity, solemnity and admirable taste. The piece ends with Sylvan eerily and wordlessly intoning the golem’s sinuous melody with a fading music-box accompaniment.
Jennifer Higdon’s On the Death of the Righteous is the first piece on this disc. Higdon who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music, composed this piece to be programmed with the Verdi Requiem. Using a John Donne sermon as its text, the work is a celebratory affair, with brass fanfares, clangorous chimes and a well-paced build. Higdon’s orchestral fireworks, set against homophonic choral writing, are dazzling when she pulls out all the stops; she verges on a classic, grandiose Hollywood mode but transcends that idiom with her relentless, frenetic inventiveness. The quiet final section, fading to just chorus and chimes, provides satisfying closure.
The third work, James Primosch’s Fire Memory/River Memory, from 1998, sets two poems by the British-born American poet Denise Levertov. Primosch ranges freely and effectively across the tonal spectrum, holding the listeners in his emotional grip even when the harmonic language becomes harsh. The first poem, “What Were They Like?”, is a series of rhetorical questions and answers, posed to victims of the Vietnam War. Towards the end, a solo violin emerges from the choral texture with poignant beauty. The second poem “Of Rivers,” builds grandly and evokes nature’s majesty, as well as the divine, metaphoric ability of rivers to “remember.” This makes an effective counterweight to “What Were They Like?”, emphasizing that the horrors of war must not be forgotten.
All three of these works were commissioned and are performed here by the estimable Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, under the commanding, imaginative leadership of Alan Harler. Their singing is by turns robust and sensitive, and they handle these challenging contemporary pieces with dexterity and enthusiasm. Only in the Primosch piece do they occasionally sound slightly under pitch. I wish they were miked a little more closely, but the balance is better than most choral discs I’ve heard recently. The instrumental playing by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia is consistently impressive.
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