Piece set to poetry highlights Jewish choral program

March 04, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Although choral singing is typically associated with settings of sacred Christian texts, this Sunday's Baltimore Choral Arts Society program at Goucher College will reflect the Jewish traditions from which Christianity descends.

Almost all the composers on the program, titled "Voices From the Old Testament: The Jewish Music Tradition," will be Jewish and -- with one exception -- all the choral works will be settings of Old Testament texts.

The exception is Samuel Adler's "From Any Human to Another," settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Countee Cullen (who was one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance), Theodore Roethke and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

While "From Any Human to Another" does not derive from a Biblical source, Adler, who is Jewish, says "it is filled with the feeling of the Old Testament in its sense of humanitarian uplift."

The 1989 work is surely positive in its outlook. The setting of one of Rilke's "Sonnets to Orpheus" treats the struggle between the human and purely technological, concluding with the triumph of the human spirit through art and music. Countee Cullen's poem "Any Human to Another," which gives its title to Adler's piece, stresses the power human beings have if they only learn to respond to each other as members of the same race.

The Roethke section advises letting the young make their own mistakes without adult interference. And the final section, a jubilant setting of St. Vincent's Millay's "Song of the Nations," imagines the absence of all hate and fear in a world free of war.

How could such a work be written today? Humans have never been more imprisoned by their technology, old-fashioned racism threatens to be replaced by a racialism that emphasizes the importance of skin color, young men without adult supervision shoot each other and innocent bystanders on our city's streets, and a war in the former Yugoslavia is euphemistically dignified as "ethnic cleansing" but is actually genocide.

"To me the world doesn't look awful," Adler says. "I'm an eternal optimist."

Such an answer might seem ingenuous, naive at best. But Adler speaks with the authority and authenticity that is a gift of his history. His genial spirits and generous impulses, which can be heard in his remarkably fine music -- ranging from large-scale liturgical pieces on Jewish themes to light-hearted secular miniatures -- have made Adler, professor of composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester (N.Y.) since 1966, one of the school's most beloved figures.

He has reason to believe in the possibility of hope.

"Remember that [my family] took the last train out of Mannheim," the German-born Adler says.

The composer belonged to one of the most prominent Jewish families in that ancient German city. His father, a distinguished composer of Jewish liturgical music, was the cantor of Mannheim's largest synagogue. As a 10-year-old boy in 1938, he watched in horror on Kristallnacht as armed mobs roamed the street, destroying Jewish-owned businesses, beating up and murdering Jews. Less than a year later -- on the last day Jews were permitted to leave -- Adler and his family fled Hitler's Germany. Despite this, Adler has never been bitter.

"Until that time, I had a wonderful childhood, for which I'll always be grateful," he says. He returned to Germany as a soldier in the U.S. Army of occupation, serving his former countrymen by organizing the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra and giving more than 75 concerts in Germany and Austria. Today, he maintains close ties with Mannheim and its orchestra, which several centuries ago was admired by Mozart and which has commissioned several Adler works.

His most recent commission was from a woodwind quintet for a concerto for their ensemble and orchestra.

"Do you know what they [the quintet] named themselves?" Adler asks. "They call themselves 'Ma'alot'-- that's the Hebrew for 'ascent,' and it's the word that ends the benediction that follows the Sabbath meal. That's something, that young German musicians would choose such a name. The hospital I was born in stood on the site of the house where Mozart's future wife Costanze grew up and where he stayed when he visited her. When I was small that made me feel that I had to be a composer. That hospital was destroyed in the war, but now a synagogue stands there. If you wish, you can call it one coincidence after another, but that sort of thing gives me hope."


What: The Baltimore Choral Arts Society performs music by Samuel Adler, Aaron Copland, Ernest Bloch and others in the Jewish tradition.

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $9-$20

$ Call: (410) 523-7070

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