Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Three Composers with Jewish Roots
AUFBAU 62:10 May 10, 1996 p11
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
May 4, 1996
839 words

Their names are: Joel Feigin (b. 1951), Joel Hoffman (b. 1953), and Yehudi Wyner (b. 1939). Each of these gifted American composers had a premiere that proved the highlight of a New York concert this past month.

The most ambitiously produced program was presented at Weill Hall by a group called "Mirror Visions: Poetry in Music," founded in 1994 by Polish-Canadian soprano Tob Malawista, who sang the part of Alice in Yehudi Wyner's setting of the Mad Tea-Party Scene from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Professor Wyner accompanied her and two other singers at the piano: Scott Murphree - who calls himself a baritone but is really a tenor - and Richard Lalli, a gifted pianist who accompanied the rest of the program and who as a character bass portraying the mad hatter displayed a most attractive vocal talent as well. He was also featured as one of the ten living composers on the program, in addition to the late Douglas Moore, Marc Blitzstein, Deodat de Severac, Vincent Persichetti, and Maurice Ravel - in whose classic "Chansons madecasses" Ms. Malawista got lost.

Linking all the compositions was the concept of placing side by side different settings of the same texts - by Shakespeare, Poe, Lewis Carroll, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and e.e. cummings. It's a wonderful concept, which the group has brought to Paris and will soon bring to London and Osnabrueck.

While Wyner (who teaches at Brandeis, and whose father Lazar Weiner was the father of Yiddish art song) seems not to have found it necessary or desirable to express his Jewish roots overtly in his larger works, the opposite is true of another American Jewish composer, Joel Hoffman. Born in Vancouver, the eldest of four siblings in an intensely musical family (his mother is a violinist, his father a conductor in Costa Rica), he attended university in Wales - partly to get away from them, partly because of the draft - and then became an Elliott Carter protg at Juilliard. His musical Jewish roots he only discovered three years ago while on sabbatical in Florence, where he found himself seeking community at the local Jewish center and began learning and becoming inspired by Jewish folk melodies, which brought what he himself calls a "new direction" in his compositions.

The occasion of his visit to New York last month was a gorgeous BargeMusic concert in Brooklyn featuring his award-winning cellist brother Gary, his Metropolitan Opera harpist sister Deborah, his violist brother Toby (a resident artist at the Barge), and himself at the piano. The first half of the program, featuring gentle, sensitive performances of Handel, Grandjany, Britten, Hindemith and Schubert, was merely prelude to Joel Hoffman's "The Music Within the Words, Part II" scored for viola, cello, harp, and piano, in the second half. The group of six pieces is the second of what will be at least three parts.: All the movements take off from traditional Jewish melodies, originally with words in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino. Particularly memorable was the cello solo in "Shlof, mein Kind," the Bartk pizzicati mixed with Ukrainian Klezmerei in "7:40," and a virtuosic "Rebe Elimeylekh" to rival Hugo Weisgall's setting of that tune in his justly-famous cycle "Di goldene Pave."

Hoffman's brothers and sister gamely responded to every challenge he threw at them, and the audience response was an ecstatic standing ovation. Which just goes to show that there is vitality in newlycomposed music (of which this is, regrettably, the only example in the entire Barge series this year), especially when it is built on tradition.

Joel Feigin is another Jewish composer, originally from Little Neck, NY now living and teaching in Santa Barbara, California, who mines tradition for inspiration. But the tradition he seems presently most taken with is that of Tibetan Buddhism, not Judaism. Ronald Edwards was the moving tenor soloist in a 12-minute preview of his one-hour work-inprogress, a Requiem in Time of Plague, with five additional soloists and piano vigorously conducted by Gary Schneider. It was the climactic work in the third of five Square One Series programs presented by Golden Fleece Ltd. at Theatre 22. You can still catch the final program, Sunday evening, May 12, featuring works by Mira Spektor and Golden Fleece's artistic director Lou Rodgers. As for the Feigin piece, one looks forward to a future hearing of the full work, and others, by this gifted Jewish-Buddhist composer.

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