New Jewish Music, Vol. 2 collects the 2018 winners of Canada’s Azrieli Music Prizes. The album’s two main pieces, by Kelly-Marie Murphy and Avner Dorman, offer distinctive approaches to modern composition based on traditional tunes and themes. Each makes a powerful statement in its own style.
Composer Kelly-Marie Murphy, winner of the Azrieli Commission award, offers the four-movement En el escuro es todo uno (In the Darkness All is One) for solo harp, solo cello, and orchestra. Rooted in Ladino folk music from the Sephardic tradition, it spins through worlds of technique and emotion, all on themes relating to women and mothers.
In the opening “Lamenta,” rhythmic bolts cut through a lyrical atmosphere like lightning in a hazy sky. The folk melody sighs intermittently from the cello, harp, and orchestra in turn. It’s a knockout punch of a piece that builds to a frenzied howl at the climax.
A children’s song aimed at teaching girls to enjoy their work in the kitchen might seem an unlikely inspiration in the 21st century, but it’s at the heart of the second movement, “Si veriash a la rana.” Playful interactions among the solo instruments and individual sections of the orchestra grow more intense, more questioning, even as the humor never quite fades. Murphy’s orchestrations have an electric, rhythmic energy that captures something fundamental about the life force seething in everyday people’s hearts, whatever their prescribed lot in life.
The modal “Cadenza Yigdal” offers a soothing if also haunting break from the intensity. Still there’s much of interest in the skillful way it makes use of the timbres of the cello and harp (played by the duo known as Couloir) and the vibraphone.
Two songs about love and flirtation combine in the final movement. “Noches, noches, Buenas Noches; Ven Chika Nazlia” is dense with harmonic clashes and muscular gestures that resolve into a spirited groove that riffs on a song whose title translates as “Come, Little Tease.”
Avner Dorman‘s Nigunim (Violin Concerto No. 2) won the 2018 Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music. Exploring the religious songs known as nigunim, the composer discovered common elements in Jewish music from many parts of the world, and used those modes, though not the actual themes, to create the violin sonata he later reworked for violin and orchestra.
Violinist Lara St. John – who, funnily enough, put out an album a few years ago called Shiksa – is one of Canada’s leading soloists, here joining the Orchestre Classique de Montréal for an alternately hymnlike and celebratory recitation of the four movements.
Mournful, perky, rollicking, dissonant, ethereal – Dorman’s vocabulary of moods is as varied as his use of modes. St. John, for her part, is at a peak of brilliance in the tonal slides of the Adagio as well as in the racing arpeggios of the Scherzo and the tarantella-like Presto finale (in 7/8 time).
Filling out the album are the Seven Tableaux from the Songs of Songs by Srul Irving Glick, newly arranged by François Vallières for soprano, piano, and string orchestra. Sharon Azrieli, creator of the Azrieli Prizes, sings (in English) these excerpts from the biblical love poems with a gentle theatrical flair that feels appropriate for the lyrics and Glick’s reflective music. Try not to feel uplifted by “King Solomon’s Wedding Procession,” hushed by “I Am Dark but Lovely,” or intoxicated by “He Took Me to the Wine Garden.” This is lovely music worthy of a new hearing in this expanded format.
But it’s the new pieces by Murphy and Dorman that make this album a standout. The music will satisfy sophisticated palates, yet can be enjoyed even if you don’t have an affinity for modern composition. And by no means do you have to be Jewish or familiar with Jewish traditions to appreciate and be moved by them.