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Bloch’s Effective Sacred Service in Less-than-effective Venue


At the exciting conclusion of the first annual Boston Jewish Music Festival, Chorus Pro Musica, Zamir Chorale of Boston, and the New England Philharmonic combined in a performance of Ernest Bloch’s monumental Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service). One would not expect the unusual venue, John Hancock Hall (in the Back Bay), to be a fine acoustic and this indeed proved to be the case. Full of paddling and carpet, with the stage fringed by layers of curtains (five, no less), the room fulfilled its promise of a dead space. Lacking any reverberation, the strings of the New England Philharmonic did not blend well, and winds and brass were muffled. One continually was aware that the music was taking place “up there” rather than enveloping the listener. The continual aspiration of the heating system, as well as a slight rattle of a vent in the ceiling made the ever-present statement that this was not a beneficial space for any event that might include a pianissimo. The choir was technically fine – precise, enunciating clearly, in tune; but a layer of emotion was stripped from the product by the stark acoustic properties. But still full of emotion nevertheless.

Serving as a prelude to the main work of the program, Andrew Rindfleisch’s delicate and expressive “Kaddish,” was commissioned by Chorus Pro Musica. CPM premiered it with nuance and precision (under Betsy Burleigh’s direction), although one wished the choir could have been at the front of the stage (instead of being behind the chairs assembled for the orchestra of the next work). The a capella prayer made measured use of dissonance amidst unisons and pure consonances. While pronunciation was clear, I still would have liked the English text to be printed in the program. Simple, direct and highly effective, this short work would resonate beautifully in another space, and I hope to hear it again.

Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh, a 50 minute “great Jewish ‘Oratorio’,” as he once called it, was the central work of the program, a choice that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Bloch’s death. Betsy Burleigh (in her first year as music director of CPM) led the combined choral forces of CPM, Zamir Chorale of Boston, and the New England Philharmonic. Zamir’s director Joshua Jacobsen provided detailed program notes as well as his expertise.

A 1929 commission was Bloch’s impetus to set the Sabbath morning liturgy. But he departed from the Reform service of his commission in setting the text in Hebrew rather than English. Only in the final section is there a passage in English (which startled me, since the English part of the text was not included in the program). Bloch wrote the work over four years, and his concern with creating a large structure that would have both cohesiveness and momentum is evident. As Jacobson observes, the work is grand and universal, to be performed as an uninterrupted whole, and not interrupted events of the liturgy that would take place in a service.

Despite my kvetching about the acoustics, the choirs and orchestra, directed by Burleigh, conveyed a convincing understanding of this powerful work. The opening Mah tovu (which Bloch described as a Pastorale) unfolds with a fugue, which is recalled in the final section as well. A six-note motive also unifies the work. The vocabulary ranges from lush post-romantic grandeur to an evocation of exotic orientalism through a parlando-idiom and a heterophonic texture of entwined melodies. In Part III, exchanges between the cantor and choir even take on an operatic idiom, as the cantor urges “do not forsake the Torah.” Baritone David Kravitz sang the cantor’s role with great warmth and intensity, and his directness in the English passage (which was both declaimed as well as sung) was exhilarating.

Joshua Jacobsen’s comparison of Bloch’s “Sacred Service” to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis became convincing rather than (as it seemed initially) far-fetched. A large musical work, it reaches beyond its liturgical origin to convey a universal meaning of gratitude, hope, and compassion, a remarkable and fitting conclusion to this music festival.

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


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. My composition teacher of blessed memory, Randall Thompson, himself studied with Ernest Bloch. Bloch’s music, once the center of much attention, has been living in the shadows in recent years. I wonder what new re-hearings will reveal to us.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 19, 2010 at 5:46 pm

  2. Who can point BMInt to the list of composers who studied with Bloch vs Boulanger?

    Is it true that R. Thompson would not admit women to his composition classes?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 19, 2010 at 6:01 pm

  3. Well, Lee, if my memory is correct, Thompson studied with Bloch at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Would be interesting to know who else of that generation went to school there. R.T. was good friends with Fred(?) Jacoby, a now-obscure (Jewish-American) composer of that generation, perhaps a Bloch student as well but I am not sure.

    Re guru rivalry, Thompson was not thrilled when I went off to Paris to study with Boulanger, but he remained discreet on the subject.

    Re R.T. and female students, I remember a woman in his fugue class. No memory of a woman composition student during my time at Harvard (63-65.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 20, 2010 at 10:13 am

  4. From Nicholas Slonimsky (ed.), “Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians,” Sixth Edition (New York: Schirmer Books, 1978):

    ” … In America, he [Bloch] found sincere admirers and formed a group of greatly talented students, among them Roger Sessions, Ernst Bacon, George Antheil, Douglas Moore, Bernard Rogers, Randall Thompson, Quincy Porter, Halsey Stevens, Herbert Elwell, Isadore Freed, Frederick Jacobi and Leon Kirchner.”

    Bloch’s five string quartets come highly recommended, and there was a Piano Quintet (1923) — with quarter-tones — that I can remember Michael Steinberg speaking highly of.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 22, 2010 at 2:11 am

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