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Gershon KINGSLEY (b.1922)
Voices from the Shadow1 (1997) [37:02]
Jazz Psalms2 (1966) [12:25]
Shabbat for Today3 (excerpts) (1968) [12:33]
Shiru Ladonai4 (excerpts) (1970) [15:25]
1 Amy Goldstein (soprano), Mary Catherine George (soprano), Matthew Walley (tenor), Larry Picard (baritone), Derek Bernel (clarinet), Jorge Avila (violin), Robin Zeh (violin), Liuh-Wen Ting (viola), Sara Hewitt-Roth (cello), Milton Granger (piano) conducted by Gershon Kingsley; 2 Lisa Vroman (soprano), Harvey Estrin (flute), Patrick Rebillot (piano), John Beal (bass), Gordon Gottlieb (percussion), Daniel Gottlieb (percussion), The Kingsley Singers/Gershon Kingsley; 3 Cantor Howard M. Stahl, Harry Goz (narrator), The Kingsley Singers, Gershon Kingsley (synthesizers)/Gershon Kingsley; 4 Cantor Howard M. Stahl, Lisa Vroman (soprano), The Kingsley Singers, Gershon Kingsley (synthesizers)/Gershon Kingsley
rec. May 1992, New York2,3,4; March 2001, American Academy of Arts & Letters, New York1.
NAXOS 8.559435 [77:35]

 

This CD, one of the extensive series of Naxos issues from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, is something of a mixed bag, in both style and quality. In one sense, it merely reflects the composer’s extraordinarily varied career. Born in Bochum – as Goetz Gustav Ksinski – the composer spent his boyhood in Berlin; he joined the Zionist youth movement as persecution increased, after Kristallnacht in 1938 he emigrated to Palestine. In 1946 he moved to the USA. He worked as organist in a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles – and as a pianist in Supper Clubs; he began to conduct for theatrical productions; later his skills led to his working with artists such as Josephine Baker and Lotte Lenya. He became a staff arranger for Vanguard Records. He also encountered composers such as Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Heinrich Schalit.

In the mid 1960s he encountered the new synthesizer developed by Robert Moog and embraced its use enthusiastically. He wrote popular hits like ‘popcorn’, produced albums (still selling) such as Music to Moog by and The In Sound from Way Out. He was apparently the first person to use the Moog synthesizer in live performances. At the same time he was also responding to the changing attitudes prevailing in some American synagogues, in search of new musical idioms for use in liturgical contexts. The confluence of these interests and influences lies behind three of the works on this CD - Jazz Psalms, Shabbat for Today and Shiru Ladonai. They attracted a good deal of attention at the time, stirring up a certain amount of controversy, with their use of thoroughly popular idioms and, in two cases, of the synthesizer. The Jazz Psalms were written to a commission by cantor David Benedikt, for use at Temple Israel in Lawrence, New York. There is plenty of fluent writing and – as ever with Kingsley – this is music of utter competence. But listened to some forty years after its composition, it now sounds rather bland and slight. In the other two pieces the synthesizer is used; I have, I confess, never been very keen on the sound of the synthesizer (especially early models) and its use here does little to reconcile me to the very predictable harmonies and less than fascinating rhythms.

With Voices from the Shadow we move into altogether different territory. An altogether less modish work, this is an extensive setting of texts by thirteen poets, texts either written in the concentration camps or by inmates of those camps after their liberation. At the premiere of Voices from the Shadow at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York, on 9 November 1997, the performance included a spoken commentary (not included on the recording) and theatrical lighting. The booklet notes by Neil W. Levin report that at the end of that first performance “the entire audience rose to its feet in a unanimous ovation” and explain that “this standing audience included a number of holocaust refugees, survivors, and former camp inmates”. I am not surprised that the work should have been so well received. It sets texts in Yiddish, French, German, Polish, Czech and English translation. The poems have been very intelligently chosen and arranged to make a thoroughly coherent sequence. Some of the poems are quite sophisticated works of art, others are terrifyingly moving in their simple dignity. Kingsley’s music is everywhere sensitive, never pushing itself forward at the expense of the texts, but supplementing them with insight. Music’s absence of a first person pronoun universalises, unostentatiously, the autobiographical content of some of the poems, links them one to another. The settings are relatively various in tempo and in the use they make of the small chamber ensemble and the colours it makes possible. There are even moments of grim irony; the whole is a moving affirmation of enduring human values, of love and hope, in the face of horrors which can never be adequately imagined. Theodor Adorno’s famous statement to the effect that making the concentration camps the subject of a work of art is itself an act of barbarism, contains a horrible truth; but for art to avoid such horrors is also a concession to barbarism. Out of such tensions comes Voices from Shadow, moving and resonant in its avoidance of rhetoric and sentimentality.

Voices from the Shadow deserves to find many listeners. But once they have heard it – I suspect that many will, like me, find the rest of the CD a serious anti-climax.

Glyn Pursglove

 

 

 



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