For today’s recital in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, the program sheet described the performers as follows:
The Jewish Music & Poetry Project consists of soprano Nanette McGuinness, composer David Garner, pianist Dale Tsang-Hall, and cellist Adaiha Macadam-Somer. The JMPP focuses on music by Jewish women poets and/or composers, as well as works by “forbidden,” i.e., Jewish composers whose music was banned—or worse, whose lives were destroyed or lost—during the Holocaust—with occasional detours to other lands, poets, and musicians (especially women artists) whose works intrigue us.
Combining that “mission statement” with the fact that we are now in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during which those, whose names have not yet been classified as wicked, have time to reflect, repent, and become righteous, there was surprisingly little Judaism in the program itself. None of the poets providing texts for the songs that McGuinness performed were Jewish. Only one was a woman, the author of “Der Weiher,” (the weir), set by David Garner. She was Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, who was not Jewish but wrote a novel entitled Die Judenbuche (the Jew’s beech). Furthermore, the authors of the three poems set by Alexander Zemlinsky (who was born and raised Jewish after his family had converted from Catholicism) were not even identified (which required a bit of homework on my part).
The only other Jewish composer on the program was George Gershwin, represented by his brief piano solo “Promenade.” Felix Mendelssohn was also on the program with his Opus 58 cello sonata in D major, but he was baptized as a Reformed Christian. Any attributions of Judaism to Mendelssohn can be traced back to the indignant pen of Richard Wagner!
Putting aside the “mission statement,” however, the program provided a fascinating sampling of repertoire. There were two piano solos, Samuel Barber’s witty take on “The Streets of Laredo,” the third of his four Opus 20 short pieces collected under the title Excursions, following the Gershwin. The three songs by Zemlinsky were followed by three by Hugo Wolf. The Mendelssohn sonata followed the piano solos and was the longest piece performed. Garner’s song then concluded with an obbligato cello part sharing the melody line with the soprano.
The high point of the program was definitely the Mendelssohn. Both Macadam-Somer and Tsang-Hall went at it with all the spirited energy it demands. It was composed in 1843, when the composer was fiercely productive (or, as cellist Bonnie Hampton liked to put it, “burning his candle at both ends”). I have also previously suggested that this sonata may have inspired Arthur Sullivan, since the trio of the Allegro scherzando movement shows up in “Trial by Jury” (“With bias free of every kind”). This afternoon’s performance thus sparkled with wit, as well as energy.
Sadly, Tsang-Hall brought neither wit nor energy to her piano solos, in which they were both critical ingredients. Indeed, she lost her way for a bit in the Gershwin, giving the impression that she was focused too much on the notes themselves and not enough on the light spirit of the music, which became the basis for a dance routine by Fred Astaire called “Walking the Dog.” Similarly, McGuinness’ approach to the songs was dutiful but never particularly spirited and not particularly informed by anything deeper than the surface structure of the words. Perhaps, if the group had been guided more by their “mission statement,” the recital would have been more of a “journey of discovery” and less a matter of dutiful routine.