American Symphony Orchestra maestro Leon Botstein. Photo by Dan PorgesIn New York homes, the celebration of Passover is often a quiet, family affair. On Thursday night, though, Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra, the Collegiate Chorale, and 13 vocal soloists in the U.S. premiere of Haggadah shel Pesach, a thunderous choral work by the obscure German-Jewish composer Paul Dessau.
Except for a few film scores, Dessau is forgotten in this country, thanks to a long Communist Party affiliation and his decision to pursue his career in East Germany. The Haggadah was written from 1934-36 in collaboration with Czech writer Max Brod, partially in response to the rise of Hitler. In 1939, the Nazis rolled into Prague, and Dessau's oratorio was not heard until 1962 in Israel. For this performance, the Hebrew translation (of the original German text) was chosen.
Dessau writes in a sturdy, heavy orchestral style, with the entire piece taken at a lumbering tread. The entrance of the Pharoah quotes Die Meistersinger. The depiction of the twelve plagues recalls the orchestral special effects of Richard Strauss, while the hushed Midnight Song following the slaying of the first-born recalls Mahler's choral writing. Things pick up with the last two choruses, a stomping "Dayenu" that takes on a folk-music tinge, and the giddy children's chorus "Chad gadya" that provides some welcome relief at the end of this heavy evening.
Every Haggadah has some degree of individuality, and the text of this work is neither the same as heard in households at Passover, nor is it directly from the Book of Exodus. Brod fused the Exodus story with ideas and commentary from the Talmud--including the interjections of five prominent rabbis. Additions to the story, like God's admonition to the angels as they celebrate the deaths of the Egyptians give fresh perspective on the story and broaden one's understanding of Biblical events.
With solo parts for five rabbis, a baritonal Moses, the children asking questions, and a heldentenor Pharoah, this concert provided a showcase for a wide assortment of singers. Sanford Sylvan was Moses, intense and powerful in the scene with the burning bush. As the Jews escaped across the Red Sea, Mr. Sylvan opened out his instrument and sang with real passion. Tenor Corey Bix struggled as Pharaoh, nearly drowned by the orchestra. Russian bass Denis Sedov brought a solemn, imposing presence to the celebration as the Seder Leader. And American bass Kevin Burdette sang the part of Rabbi Akiva with a deep, black tone.
Leon Botstein's enthusiasm for obscure repertory and forgotten works makes him an archeological hero of the New York classical music community--Indiana Jones with a baton instead of a bullwhip. But on Thursday night, he struggled to balance the enormous orchestra with choristers and soloists. The heavy brass swallowed the chorus on more than one occasion, and the text, all-important in the Passover rite, suffered the same fate as Pharoah's armies.