Maria Jette (soprano)
Krista J Palmquist (mezzo)
Anders Eckman (tenor)
James Bohn (bass-baritone)
VocalEssence Chorus and Chamber Singers/Philip Brunelle
rec. live, Ted Mann Concert Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 15 November 2008
NAVONA RECORDS NV5834 [59.56]
Kaddish is work for soloists, choir and orchestra by Lawrence Siegel, who wrote both the words and the music. Siegel has, over the last twenty years, worked on a number of projects which use the testimony of ordinary people. These testimonies have been used by Siegel in Kaddish, where he has edited interviews with holocaust survivors into a moving and poetic libretto which he has set to music.
Kaddish is in three sections, The World Before, The Holocaust and Tikkun Olam, each section split into a number of movements so that the work comprises fifteen individual segments. Though the soloists sing personally voiced narratives, such voices are assigned to the chorus as well so that they are participants rather than commentators. The World Before deals with village life before the Second World War, concentrating on Eastern Europe, derived from testimony from mainly Polish and Ukrainian Holocaust survivors. Then The Holocaust deals with the events of the war itself, with the final section being about coping with the aftermath. This section opens with a movement, Litany, where a small number of the names of the dead are spoken by the chorus, following this is a setting of the Kaddish prayer itself before the closing two movements which set reflections from some of the survivors. The libretto is mainly in English except for some of the opening songs and the Kaddish prayer.
Siegel’s libretto for Kaddish is a movingly beautiful and poetic work which simply cries out to be completed by being set to music. Siegel’s musical style is tonal and melodic. He is capable of writing rather attractive music which sounds as if it would be enjoyable to perform.
My problem comes that there seems to be a disjunction between music and subject in this piece. This is especially noticeable in the first section, where you find texts which deal with bullying and extreme prejudice, set to melodies which are lyrical and attractive. I think, perhaps, that Siegel was trying to get the material of this part to evoke the folk idioms of the people involved. But I simply found the disjunction too confusing. Concluding sections are less troubling, as Siegel’s style does get more difficult, more angular.
When writing this review, I was troubled by thoughts that perhaps I should not be critiquing Kaddish in quite the way that I would an ordinary piece of music; after all I am not Jewish and have had no experience of the Holocaust. But in recording and distributing a work like this, the originators are presuming that it will speak to others, that Kaddish will transcend its immediate appeal and illuminate the lives of listeners from other backgrounds. The CD booklet has this to say, ‘Kaddish opens a window onto the lives of survivors of the Holocaust and evokes empathy for the perished and survivors of genocide everywhere’. Unfortunately, for me, though Siegel’s text does this, his music fails to transcend its origins.
Dealing with an event like the Holocaust is difficult, after all if one wrote music that accurately reflected what happened it would probably be torture to listen to. This means that you have to deal with events in an oblique manner. And it can be true that the attitude of those who have taken part in an horrific event, can be markedly different from those that can just look on … or look back. A noticeable example of this was the way the music of composers who took part in the First War (such as Vaughan Williams and Bliss), dealt with the event in a profoundly oblique manner (RVW’s Pastoral Symphony or Bliss’s Morning Heroes). If you want a musical evocation of World War from a British symphonist then you have to go to Britten’s War Requiem and Britten was a non-participant.
All this leads me in a circular manner, back to where I started; and I have to admit that my judgement of the piece might be wrong. All I can do is advise you to try it.
Philip Brunelle and his forces give the work a fine performance, one which seems beautifully to articulate Siegel’s vision. The unnamed orchestra accompanies sympathetically and the four soloists are eloquent without ever calling attention to themselves. All singers, choral and solo, have good diction so that Siegel’s words are always audible without libretto.
If you put the CD into your computer then it plays to you whilst you can read the libretto and booklet essays from PDFs on the disc. But more than this, you can see Siegel’s full score and download educational materials.
A great deal of love and thought has gone into this disc and Lawrence Siegel’s poetic libretto deserves attention from anyone with a remote interest in the Holocaust. I would urge you to put to one side my concerns about the musical content and buy the disc so you can listen for yourselves.
A great deal of love and thought has gone into this disc.