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26 Sep 2005
LIDERMAN: The Song of Songs
Now this is one beautiful piece of music, a setting of the text of the “Song of Songs,” taken from the Hebrew Bible by the composer Jorge Liderman. Liderman is Argentinian by birth, now on the composition faculty of the Department of Music at the University of California at Berkeley. His work shows a distinct ability at the craft of composition: this is a very attractively put together work.
The text is a new translation by Chana and Ariel Bloch. In their notes to the work, they remark how exceptional the text is in a Biblical context, principally by its erotic nature, a compelling evocation of love at times quite physical. By its eroticism, amid the stern Biblical passages that surround it, the “Song of Songs” is indeed exceptional. The tone of the text itself, however, is entirely Biblical, deeply passionate about its subject matter, the narration of a lovers’ tale in sensuous detail.
While there is some fine writing for voice, chorus, and for a small ensemble of instruments (including a rocketing line for piccolo that returns as a refrain), the way in which the piece is put together shows Liderman’s accomplishment as a composer. New ideas are introduced sparingly, and one has the impression of material reused and reworked so as to create an immediate sense of familiarity. Like a finely tailored suit, the work fits one’s sensibility immediately; the effect is of something quite familiar and yet refreshingly new. This is the hallmark of craft: unobtrusive and yet substantial, fresh but not grating or intrusive.
The work owes something to Stravinsky’s Les Noces, although it is nowhere like the hard scrabble of that most curious thing. The progress of the piece is a little like Stravinsky’s “ribbon of time”--the sense of being immersed in the narrative, as if one were looking on at a lovers’ tryst, almost but not quite to point of voyeurism (whereas in Noces one has the sense of having wandered into the wedding proceedings almost against one’s better judgement). This is the gift of opera, and it would behoove Bridge to give us something of Liderman’s operatic oeuvre, perhaps his award winning Antigona Furiousa from 1991.
The use of the various ensembles also resembles Noces : their juxtaposition, pleasantly surprising and subtle at times, adds to the spontaneity of the narrative. The soprano Elissa Johnston does fine work as the Shulamite; her lover, the tenor Charles Bland, is a little overshadowed by both her voice and the voluptuousness of her role. The Chamber Chorus of the University of California at Berkeley, under the direction of Marika Kuzma, and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, David Milnes conductor, round out the complement with some good work. Liderman’s writing for the chorus is particularly notable: unobtrusive but solid, it hovers above the proceedings, again a sign of fine operatic chorus writing.
Bridge Records, like Lovely Music (reviewed elsewhere on this site), has been around long enough to establish a reputation at the capable hands of Becky and David Starobin. Bridge and Lovely stand at the forefront of a host of small labels that give the term independent label an authentic and reputable meaning. Their website is www.BridgeRecords.com. The presence of funding from the Alice M. Ditson fund should be noted here: Ms. Ditson’s bequest, made over a half century ago now, has come in aid of a quite remarkable number of musical enterprises, invariably of good quality. Were the world peopled with a few more patron like Alice Ditson, new music and good musicology would be in a much better state than it is today.
The recording would make a wonderful gift to someone inclined toward good vocal music or with an interest in Biblical literature. The dissonant nature of the work, like everything else about it, is held in firm hand, and thus someone who is not an amateur of new music will find it agreeable none the less. Highly recomended.
University of Ottawa