Old Sources of Inspiration:
[Washington Square at Merkin
LICA's Queens Composers
The Robeson Centennial]
AUFBAU 64:8 April 10, 1998 p13
1313 words [minus 106 = 1207:
possible cut in 4th paragraph]
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
April 5, 1998
"Dead nations never rise again." These are the concluding words of the long poem, "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). At a Merkin Hall concert by the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society (founded 1975), Bruce J. Taub's musical setting of it received its world premiere, sung with noble perseverance by soprano Cheryl Marshall, accompanied by pianist Marilyn Nonken, and dedicated by the composer to his "family I never met who were shot and buried in a mass grave when the Nazis invaded Husiyatin, Poland on July 6, 1941." Most of the setting is straight, quick, syllabic, and square [(in 4/4 time)]. The words of the last line, however, receive five different melodic treatments, ending with a final repetition of the hindsightfully redolent words, "never... again." The verbal manipulation is a gimmick, but one that could work, especially with a little pruning of the 60 lines of text.
Ms. Marshall and Ms. Nonken were joined by violinist Deborah Wong and cellist Gregory Hesselink in another world premiere of a more texturally varied, at times quasi-impressionistic setting by Robert Carl (b. 1954) of an even older text, in French, by the philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), based on his Pensees. Unfortunately, only the first half of the text was printed in the program, so it was hard to follow the last four or so of the eight(?) movements. The use of cello tremolandi and pianistic explosions were, however, particularly effective in the early sections.
Leo Kraft's "cummingsong" (1995), on four texts by e.e. cummings, also received its world premiere, ably sung by the light tenor of Mark Bleeke accompanied by flute, oboe, and string trio. As in his frequently-performed setting of a William Cullen Bryant poem, recorded on Capstone, the 76-year-old composer made judicious cuts in the poetry, netting a setting with at times appropriately opaque textures, precious, but sensitive in its light touch.
[The two instrumental works receiving their world premieres on the concert were also notable for their deft use of light textures: clarinet, violin, and marimba in the Rustic Dances (1995) of Louis Karchin (b. 1951); and flute, trumpet, piano, percussion, and the Chinese plectrum instrument known as the pipa in the lovely "Cloud Walking" (1997) by Taiwan-born Chien-Yin Chen. The concert opened with two solo violin works confidently performed by Curtis Macomber: the ambitious "Casting Ecstatic" (1994) by Allen Anderson (b. 1951); and (not appearing on the printed program) an unassuming Elegy (in memory of Johanna Ribbelinck) in tribute to its composer Stephen Fischer.] All the composers were present and warmly applauded by their 100 or so colleagues.
[LICA at Forest Hills]
Almost as many attended the first concert devoted entirely to Queens composers given at the Forest Hills Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library by The Long Island Composers Alliance (founded 1972). As at the aforementioned concert, the composers were all brought up on stage to speak to the audience. In LICA's case, though, there was actual interaction with the audience. Joel Mandelbaum elaborated on the microtonality of the seventh harmonic partial used in his "Rabbi Azrael's Prayers," performed by cellist Janet Holmes with the composer at the piano, and derived from the opening and closing sections of his opera The Dybbuk. Raoul Pleskow, whose "In Memory of Stefan Wolpe" was sparklingly played by flutist Hugh Williams and pianist Denise Broadhurst, described the "windows of tonality" in his largely "non-tonal" work, remarking humorously that at one time the two idioms were considered "as separate as meat and dairy," but now "anything goes!"
Broadhurst's husband Charles Griffin cracked up the entire audience in describing the legend of Pan and Syrinx as the inspiration for his "Syrinx Rondo" for solo flute, with which Williams opened the program: "Pan was chasing Syrinx for... mythological reasons...." After threading her way through the thornily Hindemithian "Tone Games" for solo piano by Donald Hagar, Broadhurst was herself represented by three settings of sensual poems by Christina Rossetti for soprano and cello. She also accompanied the concert's one world premiere: Julie Mandel's settings for soprano, flute and piano of two precocious poems by (then) twelve-year-old Joseph Alexiou, who took a bow along with the composers. Carrie Jacquith's pleasant soprano in both the Mandel and the Broadhurst was marred only by a slight wobble and lack of support in higher passages.
A Tribute to Paul Robeson
[original subhead: Ken Anderson's Robeson Tribute]
On the same day, [April 4--not 9, as appeared in print!] in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, assassinated 30 years ago, and in honor of the worldwide centennial of the birth of Paul Robeson ([April 9,] 1898-[January 23,] 1976), bass-baritone Kenneth Anderson presented a program of Negro Spirituals and work songs at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Manhasset. His accompanist was Sylvia Olden Lee, 80 years young, the first African American to work at the Met, and one of very few people alive today to have known a grandfather who had been a runaway slave and fought in the Civil War. While still in her 20s, she appeared on programs with Paul Robeson, but never actually accompanied him; and the differences between her style and that of his accompanists were apparent to the connoisseur, including no doubt Mr. Anderson, who spoke of owning every Robeson recording ever made, and often seemed to ride with rather than leading the piano.
The overly-ambitious program was cut by a few numbers after the climactic midpoint: a rendition of the 1939 Earl RobinsonJohn LaTouche "Ballad for Americans," which Robeson had made famous in a broadcast, recalled movingly to the audience by Molly Dunn, who had participated in that performance as a chorus member. The chorus in Manhasset was drawn from several churches, and sang with an enthusiasm that almost made up for lack of accuracy or precision, cheered on by the several hundred audience members.
Anderson was at his best in numbers arranged by Ms. Lee ("Lord How Come Me Here," "Motherless Chile," "Scandalize Mah Name") and others of her choosing--especially Thomas H. Kerr, Jr.'s "Gospel Train" (aka "Get On Board") with its amusingly polytonal train-whistle. There was a bit of confusion, not to say mishmosh, between "Deep River" and "Ol' Man River" on the one hand and "John Brown's Body" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" on the other. And the words to "The House I Live In" went uncredited to Lewis Allan (aka Abel Meeropol), the man who adopted the orphaned sons of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg, in whose memory this very song was sung at a concert before this very congregation just five years ago. "Die Moorsoldaten," the concentration camp song publicized by Hanns Eisler (also celebrating a centennial this year), was sung in English; but one missed the Warsaw Ghetto song, "Zog nit keynmol." Another unfortunate omission was the Spiritual "Witness," which echoed the Red-baiting persecutions of the 1950s and could perhaps be applied to the antics of certain special prosecutors today: "Now who will be a witness? Oh my Lord!"
But one could not help coming away from such a concert with a good feeling, as all who stayed to the end stood, linked arms and swayingly sang "We Shall Overcome." Mr. Anderson, whose 1963-1988 career on Long Island included leadership in the NAACP and the Suffolk Human Rights Commission, called for everyone in the audience to press for the long overdue recognition that the Phi Beta Kappa/All-American/actor/singer Paul Robeson deserves: A postage stamp in his honor this year would be "the least America could do" considering "what they did to him" in denying him a passport for eight years at the height of his international career. This was but one of dozens of tributes to Robeson being given all over the world. [Further information may be found at
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