, November 2006
Judith Lang Zaimont studied piano at the Juilliard and composition at Queen’s College with Hugo Weisgall and at Columbia University. She then travelled to Paris to study with André Jolivet. She has become a distinguished teacher as well as garnering a significant number of awards and fellowships.
Her recent works have included three symphonies, a chamber opera for children, oratorios and cantatas as well as music on American Indian themes. This disc surveys her Judaically-inspired music from 1976 to 1997.
Her 1976 Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening was commissioned by the Great Neck Choral Society (New York) for the American Bicentennial celebrations. It is not in fact a synagogue worship service but a concert work. Its sixteen movements set texts of English prose or quasi-poetic texts taken from the Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship. Unlike the better-known service settings by Bloch and Milhaud, which have developed a concert life even though they were written for the synagogue, Zaimont’s setting is based largely on texts which fall outside the liturgy. Three choral numbers were extracted from the service and have been performed widely in the context of synagogue services.
This disc contains six of the movements from the service, recorded in April 2000 by Gerard Schwarz and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, with baritone solos sung by James Maddalena. The music to be heard here is lively and tuneful and I would be interested to hear the full work, however I am not sure whether there is sufficient of interest for a non-Judaically-inclined listener. A greater problem is the significant baritone solo; James Maddalena is a fine singer but, as recorded here, his voice displays a significant wobble which becomes rather intrusive.
Dating from 1976, A Woman of Valour is written for mezzo-soprano and string quartet and sets a selection of verses from the Book of Proverbs. The poem is an ode to the ideal wife. It is an intricate work and receives a strong performance from Margaret Kohler and the Everest String Quartet.
Zaimont’s 1986 piece Parable: A Tale of Abram and Isaac is based on the poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen. In this, Owen uses the story of Abraham and Isaac as a metaphor for the senseless barbarism of the First World War. Owen adds a new twist to the end as Abraham refuses the Angel’s suggestion to offer the Ram of Pride as an offering to God and ‘slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one’. Zaimont appends the Hebrew Kaddish to the text to form a fitting conclusion.
This is an altogether more powerful work than the Sacred Service. Its language is tougher and more expressive, Zaimont was released from the need to worry about not offending her audience. The piece is written for an accompaniment of strings and harpsichord and the resulting textures are lovely, the harpsichord contributing a significant amount to the timbre of the piece. As with a number of other 20th century works, in the right hands the harpsichord can sound a very contemporary instrument.
John Aler is the hard-working and mellifluously expressive tenor soloist. But after the work’s powerful climax Zaimont introduces a remarkable new element, it actually finishes with a powerful coda in which a speaker says the Kaddish with tenor, chorus and ensemble providing gentle accompaniment; a profoundly moving experience. The work is also available in a version for chorus and organ, a form that might be worth exploration by choral societies.
The disc concludes with the most recent work on the disc, Meditations at the Time of the New Year. A two movement work which sets a selection of texts drawn from various creative silent meditations supplementing the Rosh Hashana liturgy in many Reform synagogue services. The work is written for choir and soli with a sparsely scored percussion accompaniment which features much glockenspiels and chimes. Zaimont conjures some lovely textures from her forces, but the piece sounds tricky. The Choral Society of Southern California make rather heavy weather of it and their choral sound is afflicted by wobble. Still, they give a moderately creditable performance, sufficient to allow us to appreciate the work.
As with the other discs in this series, the CD booklet gives copious information about the liturgical background to the text, so much so that for these secular works I felt that you had to dig a bit to find out the more secular and musical information.
Zaimont is obviously a composer whose work ought to be more available on CD, but whether it does her justice to highlight her Jewish-themed works, I am not really sure. Whilst the performances on this disc are strong, I came away thinking that there was rather more to Zaimont than was revealed on this disc.