Reminiscences by A Jewish Composer
AUFBAU 61:25 Dec. 8, 1995 p13
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
671 words
October 24, 1995

The 80th birthday of European-educated American Jewish composer David Diamond arrived this past July 9 with little fanfare. His longawaited autobiography will not appear in print before next year; Christopher Keene did not live long enough to conduct his long-postponed opera The Noblest Game - to be premiered by N.Y. City Opera, also next year; and the first compact disc devoted entirely to his marvelous art songs (including four of Byron's Hebrew Melodies) sung by Helene Williams has not yet come out on Cambria Records.

But on October 14 the New York Chamber Symphony, conducted by Diamond enthusiast Gerard Schwarz (who has been performing and recording all nine of his symphonies), inaugurated a series of concerts featuring David Diamond as composer, arranger, teacher, and raconteur. It was in the last of these roles that he proved most fascinating, in a pre-concert dialogue/lecture attended by a mere 20 people, though the concert itself was sold out. Thanking Irene Diamond (no relation) and her Foundation for sponsoring his current composer-in-residence status at the Y, he poignantly recalled how in 1933-34 he had mopped floors and jerked sodas there in order to pay for his rent as a student living in the very same building.

The opening work, Diamond's ten-minute Heroic Piece, dating from 1938, is the only work of his ever to be premiered outside the U.S. - by Hermann Scherchen, in Switzerland. It expresses his admiration for La Passionaria, the great Spanish oratress of "No pasaran" fame, and quotes an anti-Fascist anthem he heard sung in Paris at meetings he attended with a friend known only as "Zumzum." At the age of 23, Diamond had traveled to Barcelona with "Zumzum" and attempted to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, but was turned down as being too young and told to return to his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. The background of the piece, and the piece itself, are reflective of the composer's youthful intensity; relentless in its use of cymbals, it was performed with precision and passion. The chamber orchestra instrumentation calls, unusually, for a tuba player (not listed in the program), as well as a trombonist.

Joining Diamond in the pre-concert program was the 88-year-old Suzanne Bloch, daughter of the Swiss-American Jewish composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), to speak briefly - and rapidly! - about her father's work, the Four Episodes, winner of first prize in the 1927 New York Chamber Music Society competition. The opening Humoresque Macabre, described as a "sad procession," was taken at a rather fast clip. Likewise the quasi-scherzo second movement, Obsession, which seemed to get faster and faster. The third movement, Pastorale, described as "calm" in the published score, sounded inordinately tense. The last movement, based on impressions of the Chinese Theater in San Francisco, came across as a most Frenchified Chinoiserie, described by Diamond and Schwarz as perhaps "the most Jewish Chinese music ever written." While so much of Bloch's music retains both freshness and thoughtfulness in its lyricism, and one looks forward to reading Ms. Bloch's important long-awaited in-progress biography of him, this particular work has indeed been neglected of late, and perhaps not so "bewilderingly" as the program notes would have it.

The remainder of the program featured the brilliant Joshua Bell in Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, which has become a classic despite Jascha Heifetz's spurning of it, and Charles Gounod's Second Symphony, a bonbon between Beethoven and Bizet combining symphonic pretentiousness with balletic lightness.

[In subsequent programs of the series, Diamond will reminisce on Maurice Ravel, Deems Taylor, and Francis Poulenc (the program also includes Boulanger's teacher Gabriel Faure) November 4 & 7; on Dmitri Shostakovich, "Politics, Art and Music" (the program also includes Beethoven and Rossini) February 3; and on the relationship between teacher and student, specifically his own pupil Vivian Fung, whose new work will be featured, along with an Erik Satie arrangement by Diamond (as well as Camille Saint-Saens and Antonin Dvorak) March 30.]

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