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Intriguing Instrumentation in Alla Cohen’s Works


Alla Elana Cohen, the noted composer, music theorist, and professor at both New England Conservatory and Berklee College, was featured in a concert of her own works on February 25 at the Goethe Institut. The audience arrived soggy and bedraggled from their encounter with the elements, but it was a full house with everyone determined not to miss out on this important event. The sponsor was the Israeli Consulate, and the audience included a wide range of students, colleagues of Cohen’s, dignitaries, as well as a range of aficionados of contemporary music. A stellar cast of Israeli musicians were engaged to perform, with Cohen herself at the piano.

The program began with her Book of Prayers, vol. 2, series 8. I wondered if there was some story behind the interesting instrumentation – piano, bassoon, trumpet, and chimes? Had it been written with these trumpet and bassoon players in mind (Michael Grandel and Elah Grandel, respectively), and are those musicians related? The instrumentation worked, with the bassoon and trumpet exchanging elegiac incantations, and the piano interjecting thick cascading waves.

While the next work, Querying the Silence, for solo cello, had evocative moments, it lacked a larger sense of shape and momentum. The initial rising rhapsodic gestures were followed by eerie, wraithlike echoes. The second movement featured descending cascades broken by pizzicato interjections. Cellist Mickey Katz was an inspiring performer, with a full-throated bass range, and agile in leaping to the upper register.

Next were two works in Cohen’s series Watercolors of the Master Who is Accustomed to Paint Oils. Picking apart some issues of this title, calling oneself a “Master” suggests a whiff of hubris. Also, there are some assumed values in contrasting these genres – the Master is familiar with the grand genre of oil painting, but turns to the less weighty field of watercolors. But it was in these delicate and accessible watercolors – small studies, miniatures, even, that Cohen’s music was the most immediately infused with significance and warmth. Vol. 1, series 9 was a set of four movements for clarinet and piano. Moran Katz was the magnetically expressive clarinetist, and Cohen (here as elsewhere) performed on the piano. In the second movement, lush, sparking piano chords shimmered in alternation with quizzical comments from the clarinet. The third had a buoyant, march-like character, and fourth featured intense rhapsodic exchanges that coursed to an energetic finale.

Another set of Watercolors, vol. 2, series 2, followed; for string quintet, the superlative Ariel String Quartet was joined by bass player Tal Gamlieli. I found this set less successful, as the strings produced brittle snapping pizzicatos and harsh scraping sounds, although there was a passage where suddenly the puzzle pieces fit together with neatness and a sense of relief. In the final movement, the texture became more richly contrapuntal, with overlapping layers, and sustained suspended sonorities, and then an ending of startling simplicity.

Sephardic Romancero, series 1, was another instance where some I wondered if there was same explanation for the unusual instrumentation. Flute, oboe, piano and – electric guitar? Surely there was a story there. In the first movement the instruments shared much motivic material, with the same ideas voiced in the different timbres of the contrasting instruments. The second movement (Cohen never titles her movements) was lyrical with oboe and flute interacting over the spare, regular support of the guitar line, and then the piano energizing – or disrupting – with its entrance.  The last movement was lively, even playfully contrapuntal, with the instruments overlapping and exchanging a small group of short and closely-related motives. The use of electric guitar in this work was highly intriguing and definitely worthwhile. There was no mention of whether Cohen drew inspiration from the music of medieval Sephardic romances.

Inner Temple, vol. I, series 5, “Selihot” was for violin and cello. Cohen’s program note was not very helpful: “‘Selihot’ are Yom Kippur prayers. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement for the whole Jewish people.” I don’t think anyone in the audience needed that second sentence, but I was left wondering about the specific content of the “Selihot.” Of the three movements, the third was the most striking, with its passages of interplay moving into chordal sonorities that evoked a hymn-like atmosphere. This work is on Cohen’s new CD “The Road that Chooses Us,” but unfortunately without this third movement.

In general, I find Cohen’s writing for woodwinds more consistently compelling than her writing for strings or even piano, since the wind writing employs a more lyrical and melodic idiom, while the string writing tends explore the brutal and harsh, without a sense of direction (in several cases the audience was uncertain as to whether a piece was over).

Another set of Watercolors, vol. 1, ser. 10, for flute and piano, was next. In three movements, the first offered a melancholy, controlled use of dissonance. In the second an expansive and meandering melody was explored contrapuntally, while the final piece featured brilliant exchanges of virtuosic flourishes. As with the pieces for clarinet and piano, these “Watercolors” were perfect little gems, expertly performed by flautist Amir Millstein, and Cohen on piano.

The last work, “Sefer Ha-Shirim,” (Book of Songs), again featured the Ariel String Quartet, but the work was shapeless, with melodic gestures that sometimes seemed random.

The program as a whole was mostly a strong one, but I was left with some misgivings. The program notes (by Ms. Cohen) tended to be rather obvious descriptions rather than providing useful background information on a work, or explanation of techniques or musical vocabulary (or the role of the dedicatee). If a piece is “mysterious, dark and sophisticated” or “majestic” then the listener will experience that without needing to be told.

Ms. Cohen believes (as she says the program) “when we play music, no matter what we play, we pray.” But in fact I liked her music best when I was not intruding on her prayers. The cantorial idiom – repetition of a repeated pitch in a parlando fashion – was relied on too often, as also were ascending outbursts: craggy, virtuosic but rather unmemorable motives. And Cohen may see herself as a “humble tool” of the “Almighty,” but that viewpoint can also be seen as solipsism rather than devotion.

I also wonder that Cohen, seeing music as a form of religious communication, does not write for the voice. Her works list does include some vocal settings but none were on the program (nor on any of her recent CDs). Neither do any of her vocal works set religious texts that would suggest their use in religious services. Why is the prayer of music not combined with the prayer of words? And in light of this, it is ironic that Cohen, as a pianist, has the affect of adding vocalizations.

The motive of the Israeli Consulate General of New England, “increasing awareness of the cultural connections between Israel and New England through music,” is of course laudable, and the concert was certainly a success. But it is not clear to me why Ms. Cohen is singled out for this honor rather than also including other deserving and compelling composers (who would offer a valuable range of styles) on such a program

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is here.

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