Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia: Higdon „ Cleafield „ Primosch
1. On the Death of the Righteous
The Golem Psalms
Sanford Sylvan, baritone
2. Prologue; I. Creation
3. II. Abracadabra
4. III. The Dangers of the Name
5. IV. The Fountain of Voices
6. V. Amok
7. VI. Sounds of Clay / Alas, Poor Golem
8. VII. The Uncreation of the Golem
Fire Memory/River Memory
9. What Were They Like?
10. Of Rivers
Under the dynamic leadership of Artistic Director Alan Harler, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia has made a substantial commitment to new music, commissioning and premiering nearly fifty works since 1991, including the three compositions featured on this recording.
Jennifer HigdonÕs On the Death of the Righteous was premiered in 2009. Higdon is one of the most highly regarded and widely performed contemporary composers. She has received commissions from major orchestras and performing ensembles around the world. Her Violin Concerto, written for Hilary Hahn, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music and her Percussion Concerto won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Classical Composition. The orchestral work blue cathedral has received over 400 performances since its premiere in 2000 and her compositions have been featured on over three dozen recordings. Higdon holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
In composing a work which was to be presented along with the Verdi Requiem, one of HigdonÕs main concerns was to select a text that matched the Requiem in weight and mood, and she turned to a sermon by the poet and clergyman John Donne. On the Death of the Righteous is a study in contrasts on many levels. While VerdiÕs Requiem was meant to memorialize one man, DonneÕs text stresses equality in death. Much of HigdonÕs choral writing is homophonic with the notable exception of the text Ņone equal music,Ó which is set with repeated, overlapping voices until it coalesces into a single statement. The homophonic character of the choral music lends it sonority and an air of calm assurance which contrasts with the more agitated and dissonant orchestral writing.
The work opens with an eerie sound of bells and chimes. The chorus enters softly, with the voices moving outward, successively adding pitches and growing in volume until a thick, declarative chord is reached. In a quieter section, first inner and then outer voices move by half steps, chords sliding from major to minor to major again. A march-like section is punctuated by sharp, strident chords from the orchestra, with the chorus moving in whole-tone parallel chords. The orchestra interrupts the text several times with loud, agitated statements, but the work finally concludes as quietly as it began.
The Golem Psalms, set for baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra, was premiered in 2006, and features an original libretto created by author and noted folklorist Ellen Frankel. Composer Andrea ClearfieldÕs works for instrumental and vocal soloists, chamber ensemble, chorus, orchestra and dance have been performed by noted artists around the world. She has received numerous prizes for her compositions, including the Theodore Front Prize for Chamber and Orchestral Music for her cantata on breast cancer, The Long Bright. Clearfield is also pianist with the Relche Ensemble for Contemporary Music, and her compositions and performances have received frequent recordings. A strong believer in creating community through music, she is the founder, host, and producer of the Philadelphia SALON concert series featuring contemporary, classical, jazz, electronic and world music.
The Golem Psalms recounts the famous legend of the Golem of Prague. A golem is a creature from Jewish folklore, created from mud or clay and brought to life through ritual and incantations. The golem is often animated through a word of power inscribed on the golem itself or written on a bit of paper and slipped into the golemÕs mouth. Golems are completely lifelike in appearance, but they lack a soul and the power of speech. They are immensely strong and bound to obey their creator, which they occasionally do with a disastrous single-mindedness.
According to legend, the rabbi Judah Loew was directed in a dream to create the golem to protect the Jews of Prague. He fashioned a body out of mud on the banks of the Moldau River, performed the prescribed rituals and incantations, and carved the word emet (truth) on the golemÕs forehead. When the golem had been brought to life, he was brought to the rabbiÕs house, where he was passed off as a servant answering to the name Joseph. Joseph did protect the Jews of Prague, but his single-minded obedience also made him dangerous. There are several stories of him running amok, roaming the streets of Prague by night, committing violence and even murder, and holding the city in a grip of terror. Rabbi Loew eventually decided that the golem must be uncreated, so he performed the rituals in reverse, reciting the incantations backwards, and erased from the golemÕs forehead the first letter of emet, changing the word to met (dead.) The lifeless clay body was hidden in the attic of the synagogue, where legend has it lying to this day, waiting to be reawakened.
Clearfield divides the work into seven parts, a ritually significant number which recurs throughout the piece – seven chords or chimes that punctuate the music, seven-note motifs, measures of seven beats. The first section opens with a driving, ominous beat. Lines of text weave in and out of each other with overlapping rhythms. A seven-note motif set to the phrase Ņform and life and change and deathÓ spins endlessly like a wheel.
Clearfield inserts several musical gematria into the score, where different notes are assigned to letters in a word. One is found in the shimmering music that opens the second movement, Abracadabra, and another is found in the angular phrase first heard in the low instruments which begins the actual incantation. This musical phrase is repeated in different permutations and with ever-increasing intensity as the golem is created. It will reappear in other permutations when the golem is later uncreated.
In the third movement, the sacred four-letter name of God is chanted as an incantation over and over as the music builds with an inexorable intensity, suggesting not only the power of the Name but also the danger when it is misused. The Fountain of Voices is the emotional center of the piece. It provides an immediate contrast to the frenzy of the preceding movement, opening with a beautiful a cappella psalm. A litany of the names of God are spoken again, but this time quietly and reverently. It again reinforces the importance of the word in the Jewish tradition, and the contrast to the silent golem who can neither praise God nor pray. The fifth movement offers a bit of comic relief in the story of Joseph, the rabbiÕs wife and the fish. There is a kind of breathless, run-on quality to the text which Clearfield adroitly captures in the music.
The final movement recounts the unmaking of the golem. The incantations are sung in reverse, with the accompanying music using variations on the original seven-note theme that begin to pile up on one another. Above the sound of the chorus, the baritone sings fragments of melodies based on Hasidic niggunim, wordless songs meant to express feelings and emotions that cannot be put into words. The niggunim that Clearfield chose are particularly poignant in this context – the Song of Yearning and the Song of Redemption. As the music fades the wordless voice of the golem continues softly, until it too fades away.
Fire-Memory/River-Memory was commissioned and premiered in 1998. Composer and pianist James Primosch currently serves as Robert Weiss Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Presser Electronic Music Studio. His instrumental, vocal and electronic works have been performed throughout the United States. His Icons was played at the ISCM/League of Composers World Music Days in Hong Kong, and Dawn Upshaw included one of his songs in her Carnegie Hall debut recital. Primosch is also active as a pianist, especially in the area of contemporary music and jazz, and his compositions and performances have been extensively recorded.
Primosch turned to the work of the British-born, American poet Denise Levertov for the text of Fire-Memory/River-Memory, selecting two thematically related poems. What Were They Like? was inspired by LevertovÕs fierce opposition to the Vietnam war. It is in the form of a set of eclectic but seemingly innocent questions about the lives and customs of the Vietnamese people. There is a bitterly ironic tone to the answers, which depict the destruction of a way of life by the ravages of war in a horrifyingly matter of fact way. Even more chilling is the repeated phrase, ŅIt is not remembered,Ó as if all traces of a people and their way of life have been lost from our collective memory.
PrimoschÕs setting of this text is extraordinary, arranging it now as a dialog. The questions are given to the menÕs voices in short phrases, often accompanied by brass and with just a hint of self-importance, like examination questions posed by a teacher. The answers are given by the womenÕs voices in long, sinuous melodies in which the voices weave in and out of each other. It lends an air of innocence which stands in sharp contrast to the sadness and horror in their answers. And even when the music rises in its emotional pitch, the emotion quickly fades. It is as if the loss of memory also makes it impossible to feel true empathy with the people, possibly the greatest horror of all.
Of Rivers is a poem born of LevertovÕs deep and abiding spirituality. For her, there was no separation between the sacred and the ordinary experiences of everyday life, and she saw the divine in every aspect of the world that surrounded her. That Ņrivers rememberÓ is somewhat of a paradoxical image, for the essence of water is its fluidity. Rather, it is a collective memory, formed by the forces that shape the river, transmitted to the water in a Ņpilgrim conversationÓ even as the water carries the memory onward as it flows downstream. In this context, it forms a sort of mirror image of What Were They Like? Primosch opens this movement with a short, angular phrase that builds in momentum and intensity, like the gathering of waters into a river. The chorus enters with that same angular phrase on the text ŅriversÓ and a contrasting, arched phrase Ņremember.Ó The music builds, slowly and inexorably, into a torrent of sound. The opening line is quoted again at the end with the word ŅrememberÓ being repeated over and over, now transformed into a plea or exhortation.
Program notes copyright © 2011 Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. All rights reserved.
Alan Harler, Artistic Director
Alan Harler became Mendelssohn ClubÕs twelfth Music Director in 1988 and was named Artistic Director in 2009. A strong advocate for new American music, he has commissioned and premiered nearly 50 compositions during his tenure with Mendelssohn Club. He has developed a number of other important initiatives with the chorus, including a highly regarded multicultural concert series and an innovative conducting apprenticeship program that deals with all aspects of leading a community chorus. Most recently, he has explored multidisciplinary performances including a concert of improvisational music and motion with composer Pauline Oliveros and choreographer Leah Stein, and a fully choreographed work for chorus and professional dancers with Stein and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.
Harler has long been an active conductor outside of Philadelphia. He has appeared at the Festival Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the Aspen Choral Institute, and more recently has given master classes and conducted performances in Taiwan, China and South Africa. He serves as a Conducting Mentor with the Conductors Guild, making himself available for consultation with young conductors internationally. He conducted Mendelssohn Club in a critically acclaimed recording of a commissioned work, Robert MoranÕs Requiem: Chant du Cygne, for Argo/London Records in 1994. Harler has prepared choruses for many of the countryÕs leading conductors, including Riccardo Muti, Klaus Tennstedt, Charles Dutoit, Zubin Mehta, Rafael Frhbeck de Burgos, Lorin Maazel, David Robertson, and Wolfgang Sawallisch.
Harler served on the faculty of Temple UniversityÕs Esther Boyer College of Music for three decades, retiring in 2010 as Laura H. Carnell Professor and Chairman of Choral Music. In 2009 Alan Harler was honored with Chorus AmericaÕs prestigious Michael Korn Founders Award for Development of the Professional Choral Art, and the Musical Fund Society of PhiladelphiaÕs Honorary Lifetime Membership for a Distinguished Contribution to the Musical Life of Philadelphia.
Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia
Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia is one of AmericaÕs oldest musical ensembles. It began in 1874 as an eight-voice male chorus founded by William Wallace Gilchrist, one of the most important musical figures in nineteenth century Philadelphia. The chorus rapidly expanded, and was able to provide more than three hundred singers for the 1916 American premiere of MahlerÕs Eighth Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. Mendelssohn Club has earned a prestigious reputation by giving the first performance outside the Soviet Union of ShostakovichÕs Thirteenth Symphony, the American premiere of WaltonÕs BelshazzarÕs Feast, and the Philadelphia premieres of BrahmsÕ German Requiem, ProkofievÕs Ivan the Terrible, ScriabinÕs First Symphony, BartkÕs Cantata Profana, and the full orchestral version of BrittenÕs War Requiem, among many others. Mendelssohn ClubÕs recording of Vincent PersichettiÕs Winter Cantata was nominated for a Grammy Award and its performance of the Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra was broadcast on PBSÕs Great Performances series.
Under the outstanding leadership of Artistic Director Alan Harler, the 130-voice chorus has become known for its professional productions of choral/orchestral programs as well as performances in guest engagements with prominent area orchestras. HarlerÕs innovative programs combine new or rarely heard works with more traditional works in order to enhance the presentation of each, which has earned Mendelssohn Club an ASCAP/Chorus America Award for Adventurous Programming. Mendelssohn Club has also been honored with an award from the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations for Ņbringing the community together in songÓ through HarlerÕs multicultural concert programming.
On the Death of the Righteous was recorded live in concert March 29, 2009.
The Golem Psalms was recorded live in concert May 7, 2006.
Fire Memory/River Memory was recorded live in concert November 3, 2007.
This recording is made possible in part by the Premiere Recording Program, a joint initiative of the Presser Foundation and the Philadelphia Music Project, a program of the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by the University of the Arts; and the Alan Harler New Ventures Fund.
© 2012 Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia.