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Lidarti’s Found Esther Intermittently Interesting

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Dylan Sauerwald conducted from the harpsichord.

The prospect of MIRYAM Baroque Ensemble’s East Coast premiere of an early-Classical oratorio on the Biblical Esther to a Hebrew text piqued BMInt’s interest (HERE). About 150 people came to Emmanuel Church / Central Reform Temple in Boston to hear the event, just a few days before Purim, which will begin on March 20th. Titulaires of the Jewish and Episcopal congregations pointed out not only the ecumenical significance, but also the political meaning of the Esther story during the 15 minutes after the planned start time.  The oratorio repeated Sunday afternoon at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. The historical significance of this gesture of reintroduction is what this writer most appreciated. And we also welcomed the 20-page program booklet, which was elegantly edited, handsomely printed with the complete text in Hebrew and transliteration on left-hand pages, and English translation with Talmud-like commentary on the right-hand pages.  (How come the facsimile on the back cover, as retrieved from the Ets Haim Library in Amsterdam, showed the beginning of the 18th-century libretto in Hebrew with English headings?)

One observes that the libretto of Esther, adapted from the same text used by Handel in 1716 (and revised in 1732), is stylized and perhaps filtered to weed out any specifically Christian background, but it still is replete with references to divine justice and God’s mercy, ending with a resounding Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). But the name of God is never mentioned in the canonical Book of Esther, and this lack accounts for the carnival spirit that usually prevails when the Megillah is read at Purim — I heard a rabbi shout once to the crowd, “This is one that we win!”  And we don’t forget that the story is likely older than the Jews themselves (Mordecai = Marduk, Esther = Ishtar; check your Golden Bough).

Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti (b. 1730, d. after 1793), an Austrian composer of Italian ancestry, wrote the music for the Hebrew Esther.  His style has been compared to that of early Mozart or Haydn, but Gluck’s music makes a better comparison stylistically and chronologically; Esther provided a good illustration of music that is pleasantly and competently composed but that reveals only a third-rate imagination.  Despite the enticements to invention offered by the legend itself, a remarkable uniformity of mood prevailed. The lack of drama, and an almost interminable succession (ten of them, plus three duets) of formally impoverished da capo arias made a case for some cuts. Handel told the story with drama and wit in 90 minutes. Three hours of Lidarti proved especially hard to take, with one intermission after the lengthy Act I.  As an expert on harmony and tonal structure, I listened closely and ever hopefully for some signatures of harmonic originality or even mild surprise, and failed to hear anything out of the very ordinary 18th-century norm. Galant it may have been, but mostly dull.

Some of the choral numbers were agreeable enough, especially when wrought in imitative counterpoint, though seldom departing from tonic and dominant and pedal points; “Shiru l’Elohim” (sing to God) in I/3 had a stolid majesty. And Esther’s aria in II/2, “Husah na al Yisroel” (Take pity, please, upon Israel), showed a certain expressive pathos that was missing elsewhere.

Orchestrally there was a good deal of concitato in the fast pieces — too much, sometimes, and too uniform — and a lot of dotted rhythm.  But the concitato excitement was generally too tame even for Esther’s outrage at the evil Haman, in a placid D major. The orchestration itself showed nothing distinctive. The ensemble was small — two flutes, two oboes, two horns, and strings 3-2-1-1-1. The first violins had a dismaying tendency to fudge the fingering in fast scale passages, with a muddy or even chaotic sound, and there was a painful moment when half the violins couldn’t agree whether their cadencing note was A-flat or A, and they replicated this twinge exactly in repeats a few bars later. The warm sound of wooden flutes gratified, but they sounded only seldom. As for the natural horns, they splattered so many notes that they revealed a definite lack of readiness for prime time, especially in the perilously high B-flat alto register. Dylan Sauerwald governed the whole ensemble from the harpsichord, which was scarcely audible most of the time; he kept things together, but the pauses between numbers always ran too long, and one wonders whether more rehearsal, which seemed to be needed in other quarters as well, would have speeded things up and enabled many of the numbers to have dragged less in tempo.

Alicia DePaolo sang the title role

Esther, like so many in the oratorio genre, is a vehicle for solo singers even more than for the chorus. Ensemble director Alicia DePaolo brought a rich soprano to the title role, but it took her some time to warm up, and her excessive vibrato was sometimes troubling; by Act II she was in fine condition. Elise Groves as the Israelite Lady, a choryphaeic role, also took time to warm up, but her tone was very clear. Corey Hart, tenor, singing Mordocai, was the best of the male singers, clear and expressive; Jacob Cooper, baritone, sang Haman with plainly evil expression but not much musical tone, while Elijah Hopkin, in the larger role of Ahasveros, never seemed to be in full voice — he got tired reaching the high A — nor indeed much interested in what he was singing.  Nor did any of the singers, except perhaps Cooper, articulate words as if from an actual language.

This East Coast premiere by the MIRYAM Baroque Ensemble was disappointing for several reasons, above all the poverty of the music, but efforts of discovery, even when disappointing, are ever necessary to our art.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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  1. We were both at the same concert! Program notes on background regarding the composer and performance background were sparse; I resolved to do some Internet research afterwards using pre-Internet principles. Yes, the instrumentalists got out of phase occasionally and the horns flubbed here and there and for the record the BSO’s horns in the 1960’s were also known for flubbing, particularly on the hunt chorus in Haydn’s “The Seasons” I HEARD THEM. More rehearsing might have solved this tho’ one wonders how Saturday night went and whether what we were hearing was from overly tired performers. Which brings up this point: we were there to hear this particular unusual work with the likelihood this is the only one of its type (Hebrew oratorio) to have survived from a composer most of us had never heard of from a place (Amsterdam, NOT NY!) not known as a musical hot spot. So we have been informed; many thanks to MIRYAM for doing this even if the performance was less than perfect. If they had done some more Mozart I wouldn’t have been there. I may post more about style issues regarding the composer later.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — March 3, 2019 at 10:30 pm

  2. This review contains a wealth of advantages. It is beautifully written, it criticizes gently and, as an added bonus, it uses a wonderful word that should make make more appearances upon the stage of prose: “Titulaires.”

    Also Professor DeVoto brings up and answers a question that has long perplexed me: how much effort should we put forth in realizing mediocre music? Having not heard Lidarti’s “Esther”, I can’t say if I would echo the reviewer’s lack of enthusiasm for the piece. It is possible that upon hearing it this correspondent would place it even higher on the ladder than his current favorite tune, THIRD-RATE ROMANCE by the” Amazing Rhythm Aces”. If I ended up sharing his opinion that the music is less than stellar, I would also share his support for the musicians who brought it to our attention.

    As Professor DeVoto points out, Lidarti’s Easter may grate musically, but it is significant for how it fits into the fascinatingly convoluted web of cultural history. For this reason alone, the performers deserve our thanks.

    Many years ago, I played string quartets with Les G. of blessed memory. He drove the other violinist and cellist into fits because he insisted on sight-reading through second and even third-tier works that his intolerant bandmates considered unworthy. Eyes would roll when he brought out Ludwig Spohr or Ditters von Dittersdorf from his music cabinet. Many years latter, I thank him for his sense of adventure. Damn how I wish I could take my eyeballs back. Delving into Spohr gave me perspective. It made playing Haydn even better. And as for the Dittersdorf….it turned out to be fine music indeed.

    The musicians who worked to give us Lidarti’s Esther deserve praise for doing what Les did.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — March 4, 2019 at 1:26 pm

  3. Oops…”my current favorite tune”…not “his” in the above!

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — March 4, 2019 at 6:25 pm

  4. I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a narrow-minded review before in my life, and I regret that I was not able to submit a rebuttal to it immediately. I will do so as concisely as I can, for there is much to address. Dr. DeVoto reveals himself to be deeply ignorant of 18th century music, bafflingly incurious, and oddly uninterested, or perhaps unaware, of the significance of the work he heard.

    The premise of the review, that ‘Esther’ is a mediocre piece of music not deserving of our ears, is silly and offensive. ‘Esther’ stands alone as the only evening-length piece of Jewish sacred music in the European classical tradition since antiquity to the nineteenth century, and very well to the twentieth. This is not a mere curiosity: it is profoundly important. Hebrew was a language not spoken in those days. The people who understood it were persecuted mercilessly. The power of a work on this scale, with grandeur, elegance, and in Hebrew to those audiences, and to Jewish classical music lovers today, cannot be overstated.

    But instead of listening to the virtues it offers, and perhaps learning something from this unique perspective, our reviewer prefers to denigrate it for not sufficiently titillating his taste for contorted harmony. A taste, I might add, which is shared by today’s audiences about as much as it was by those of the 18th century (in case I’m not clear, it isn’t a lot.)

    Further, he shows deep ignorance of 18th century musical styles by referring to the whole piece as being in a single style, which he feels is similar to Gluck. ‘Esther’ contains many styles, from the entirely unabated triples and compounds of King Ahasveros, a slave to taste and sensuality, to an idiosyncratic approach to stilo antico writing in the choruses. Many other stylistic currents abound, but this review sure wouldn’t tell you. I would add that ‘formally impoverished da capo arias’ is an oxymoron: the dominant vocal form of the 18th-century needs no apologies. This reviewer’s impatience is the problem here, not the da capo aria.

    I won’t go further here, but suffice it to say that I find this review to be fautous, lazy, and deeply unfortunate. Miryam is an important project, and mounted Esther with about .1% of Handel & Haydn’s annual budget. That this is the kind of press it receives is utterly shameful.

    Comment by Dylan Sauerwald — March 5, 2019 at 8:31 am

  5. Having just now listened to excerpts of Lidarti’s “Esther”, I say that it is third-level music. Also with conviction I say that it is completely delightful and captivating stuff…beautifully crafted and charmingly reflective of a rich and graceful musical style. How is it possible to reconcile this contradiction? By adding a caveat. It is third-level music in relation to first-level music. Music two steps lower than the sublime is worthy music. There are a levels innumerable that descend from the top shelf. Third place on the ladder is an impressive place to be.

    If I grasp one of the main thrusts of Professor DeVoto’s review correctly, he thinks that the main reason to program this piece is because it is of historical interest. After sampling the delights of “Esther,” I disagree and share in Dylan Sauerwald’s praise of the musical qualities of Lidarti’s work.

    An atavistic enthusiasm (could it possibly be that my foremothers were members of the venerable Dutch Synagogue that commissioned the piece?) makes me argue that the term “historical interest” in reference to this work doesn’t go far enough. Mr. Sauerwald makes the case far better than I could that the oratorio is profoundly significant in a multitude of ways.

    There is a tragic poignancy bound up with this “Esther”. That the machers of that congregation of Amsterdam Jews lived in a place of such safety and prosperity that they could commission the work is in stark and heartbreaking contrast to the fate of their descendants.

    From a musical perspective Lidarti’s “Esther” is more than worthy of reviving and celebrating.
    For reasons more important than can be contained in mere music, it is located at the highest place.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — March 6, 2019 at 3:10 pm

  6. As the descendant of a Dutch Jew who might have been present at the birth of the Lidarti’s Esther, and myself a finder and presenter of works undeserving of neglect, I attended the concert with the expectation that I might be moved by some primitive longings. In other words, I wanted to like it. Unfortunately, the combination of an unpolished performance, an interminable length with not-very-differentiated repeats, and a not very singable language not very well sung, left me not just un-moved, but feeling trapped. We left after the hour-long first act.

    Why does Dylan call this Esther a “sacred work?” Yes, it has a partially biblical text, as Handel’s version did, but as we know, Handel used the words of the Bible as a workaround for mounting opera in a puritanical era. One also wonders, then, why a work that was unlikely to have been performed in a religious service needed to be in Hebrew in a place and era when no one spoke it. Why didn’t the Amsterdam congregation translate Handel’s Hebrew Bible shows into Dutch? They probably did. Schubert was happy to comply with prayer settings in Hebrew, and the Christian Bruch set an indispensable Kol Nidre (though ohne Worte). So, aside from its length, what is so special about Lidarti’s Esther?

    Does anyone know anything about the performance history?

    Often, if not usually, obscure works deserve neglect; this one might have worked better with some cuts and perhaps a trigger warning for sameyness .

    Probably 99% of the what has been composed has been forgotten or never even performed in the first place. If one is going to revive obscure works, one is well advised to select ones that had considerable success in an earlier era. One such, Rumshinski’s Die goldene Kale, made a powerful impression on me in a revival the NY Yiddish Folksbiene a couple of years back despite the fact that it wasn’t sophisticated concert music. I am open-minded, I think.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 6, 2019 at 6:26 pm

  7. Not wishing to go deep into polemic in a comments section, I’ll just answer the questions raised in the last comments.

    My understanding is that not much is known about the performance history of ‘Esther.’ I refer to the work as sacred because it is an obvious paraphrase (if not a spectacular and direct interpretation), of the ritual of reading the Megillah as part of the Purim celebration. This separates it from other Jewish musical works of the past, as it is, if not literally liturgical, effectively so.

    This also goes to a central aspect of its composition and context, captured much more authentically in the second performance of the work. Sunday’s performance, at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, had a substantially more engaged audience, who participated in the tradition of booing the mention of Haman’s name (fortunately, spoken almost exclusively in recits), and generally viewing themselves as participants in the storytelling. This is, of course, a stark contrast to traditional classical theater music, where the audience, silent in the darkened house, may solemnly contemplate the nobility of the composer’s vision.

    I consider this the major driver of what Mr. Eiseman calls the ‘sameyness.’ I won’t argue with the assessment; only that I consider it a pertinent feature, rather than a fault. It results from the celebratory and corporate understanding of the performance, in which a decidedly more-festive and less-cerebral mood prevails. I won’t go on, but there are many other factors in this piece that strongly separate it from other 18th-century oratorio, and which point towards this more participatory, public conception of the story.

    Lastly, awkward though this position is for me as the conductor, I feel obligated to defend the performances. Saturday’s performance was safely the most snake-bitten I have ever been a part of in my professional life. Multiple sections had stunning and novel misfortunes that didn’t even suggest themselves in a limited but effective rehearsal process, and Emmanuel’s large and sombre space made for low audience energy and nervous musicians, especially as the unlooked-for mishaps began adding up. Futile though it may be, I must say that Sunday’s enormously better, and unfortunately un-reviewed performance was very warmly received by its audience.

    Comment by Dylan Sauerwald — March 7, 2019 at 11:13 am

  8. 3 things seem to be at work here. Respect for the community that commissioned the piece, performance choices, and, just perhaps, that this was for Purim.

    The thoughtful production and program showed great respect, and perhaps that also affected performance choices (the careful pace, a reluctance to cut…).
    As for Purim, if you go to a service or a celebration today, you may well find a lively, even raucous, atmosphere. This could be one way to take Haman’s gory first aria, with its many, many, many… repeats: Not so much overly repetitive as simply over the top.

    I am grateful for being introduced to the Oratorio, the care that was taken, and the lovely singing that I heard. If other groups are stimulated to perform it their own way, I hope to hear them too.

    About to post this, I see that the previous comment also brings in Purim. I can well believe that the context of the second performance made all the difference.

    Comment by LoisL — March 7, 2019 at 12:43 pm

  9. It’s been two weeks; I have no developed text but I promised you more comment so here goes. Since this performance I had a four day whirlwind from Handel’s Jephthah to Ockenghem to Salieri to Britten with a Single Malt dinner at the Parker House thrown in between. Ludwig Spohr studied under Haydn I think and ca. 1860 he was thought of as first-rank; then he faded. Dittersdorf was a friend of Haydn’s; no, I didn’t get to MOPR’s concert to hear if Dittersdorf’s music was as bad as I’ve been telling people his is. Now we wonder at the Leipzig city council because J. S. Bach was their SECOND choice as The Man They Really Wanted turned them down. MOPR did some music of Johann Christoph Bach (1732-95), the “Buckeburg” Bach who demonstrates the problem in being a hired composer: your boss pays you very well to write good music but in a thoroughly obsolete style and even pays you very well to go study that style for three years in Italy then come back. Turns out from MOPR’s concert we learn that that Bach could write in more than one style. I have a CD, first recording, of his surviving symphonies; a lot of his manuscripts were destroyed in WW 2. His last symphony (from 1794) survived and shows a contemporary idiom imperfectly grasped. I noted at one point during “Esther” that I suspected the composer was using a somewhat different kind of music for Haman vs. the other characters which struck me as not usual. Now it is useful to learn what else was being done at the time, but of course how much of the music market/audience members want to do that vs. hear yet another Eine Kleine Nachtmusik? I went to West Roxbury to hear the Salieri Requiem; I would have given the Mozart one as pass. Speaking of the Mozart R; it is known that the public really likes the parts that are pure Sussmayr, which is “unacceptable” to the “music crowd”. The following is non-musical, but some years ago we had the opportunity to see the Huntington do Boucicault’s play “The Shaughraun” (1874) widely regarded as his masterpiece. Yes, it was great entertainment, but also a prime example of actual 19th century popular theater–and exactly what later playwrights like O’Neill & Co. were rebelling against. Lastly, there is the matter of WHAT gets chosen to be done, which brings us back to Esther where there was a confluence of holiday with performance opportunity meant we got something unusually rare. On the other hand there is a certain radio station of inane classical programming with the same music repeated with no real care in what is chosen other than the M-word must be heard. Then along come the L—-n Mozart (the “M” word again!) P—–s who always choose the most treacly styled pieces to perform. Yes, we want to hear what Roessler/Rosetti (1746-92, another Haydn student) sounds like; I know from Monadnock Music he wrote an interesting G Minor symphony but the LMP won’t do it instead yet another treacle alert. So, in conclusion, choose well, rehearse, yes, rehearse and practice, and surprise us and make us appreciate WHY we have a CANON of works.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — March 18, 2019 at 2:26 am

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