Jacobsons' Commissioned 'Suite' a Joy
When a couple reaches that milestone 50th wedding anniversary, the exchange of special gifts is to be expected. We don't know what private gifts Pinehurst residents Vivian and Ralph Jacobson gave each other on that magical day last week. We do know that they also celebrated by giving a marvelous gift of music to the community on Feb. 17 and 18 at the Weymouth Center.
A concert by Seth Weinstein, composer and pianist, featured the world premiere of "The Chagall Suite," commissioned by the Jacobsons and performed by the 32-year-old composer to great acclaim by the audience.
Vivian Jacobson is well known as an authority on the art of Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and frequently lectures on Chagall and the messages given through his paintings. Seeing a connection between Chagall and (of all people) Elvis Presley, she asked Weinstein to compose a piece based on the themes common to this apparently odd couple.
"Conversations" is a brief work that shows an astounding musical brilliance. Weinstein is a lover of the Russian Romantics (Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, et al.) and the dramatic opening of the piece is oh-so- Russian in its boldness.
This is appropriate since Chagall was born into a Hasidic Jewish family in what is now Belarus. But "The King" was born in Tupelo, Miss., in a totally different culture, so one must wonder how these two can be linked. Weinstein does it and does it wonderfully.
The music veers from 19th century Russian classicism to Jewish dances to Elvis-style blues of the 1950s. Mixed in is even a bit of Klezmer music -- think Bluegrass in Yiddish -- which may well be the link uniting the messages of the two subject artists. The work sounds improvised -- it flows freely and easily as if the composer-pianist was making it up as he went along.
He wasn't, of course, and this reviewer isn't sure how he did it, but all present were smiling and more than a few of us were saying to ourselves: "Oy Veh, Rock On!"
What a joy it was to hear this music. In Weinstein's piece, Chagall and Elvis had a conversation we all would have loved to hear in person. We shall not have long to wait for further explanation as Vivian Jacobson commissioned "Conversations" as part of her ongoing presentations and lectures on Chagall and his art.
"The Chagall Suite" consists of eight short movements, each evoking a scene or theme related to the painter's life and his message. Chagall believed the Bible to be the world's greatest book, and its greatest message is that of the power of love. This is not a love that is Jewish, nor Christian nor sectarian in any way, but rather universal. To quote him: "When there is love, all things are possible."
The eight movements start with an evocation of daily life in Chagall's home village of Vitebsk with its familiar sounds; as Weinstein said in a pre-performance interview: "think Fiddler on The Roof." Indeed, the music relies heavily on evocation -- on representing in sound that which is seen by the eyes and felt in the heart. Spanish music -- Turina, Granados, and others -- were masters of this form, and the Russians were just as good. Weinstein is quite familiar with both evocative traditions and handles them well.
Judaism is in many ways a commemorative set of beliefs. There is heavy emphasis on what happened in the past, on not just remembering, but even more on not forgetting. During Chagall's life he knew of pogroms, anti-Semitic hatred, world wars, the Holocaust. These are not things one forgets nor are they things that should be forgotten.
Yet, for all this, Chagall saw love and even joy in the world, and it is this love and joy that the composer expresses so well in the music.
As Weinstein told me, this is not "Jewish music." Pressed to classify the work, he said simply that it is "modern classical music" -- certainly a fair and accurate categorization.
From village life, "The Chagall Suite" moves through movements evoking the Bible, a circus, lovers and flowers, and a magnificent movement entitled "The Prince of Peace -- Jesus and the Prophet of Peace -- Isaiah". The final three movements evoke Paris, where Chagall went to live upon leaving Russia, an exposition of the symmetry of nature, and a passionate but controlled finale about angels.
As Weinstein and this reviewer sat drinking our tea and coffee at Frankie's, he tried as best he could to explain his work. He composed both "Conversations" and "The Chagall Suite" based on what he knew of Chagall from his own studies and from material given him by Vivian Jacobson.
Then he thought about it and fiddled with it, and wrote what he felt. No musicological blathering, no ideological posturing, he wasn't really able to articulate to the inquisitor what it all meant in the grand scheme of things.
When asked to sum it up in one word, Weinstein's response was "passion." It was and is the most intelligent thing I have ever heard from anyone associated with the arts. And that passion came through so clearly in both the composition and the playing of the eight movements.
Musically, "The Chagall Suite" is really impossible to categorize. It includes elements of just about every (Western) musical form one can imagine -- romanticism, impressionism, Jewish folk music, jazz. If the kitchen sink could be tuned, Weinstein may well have thrown it in where appropriate.
One is reminded of the show music of Andrew Lloyd Webber that utilizes a wide variety of musical styles. Weinstein does somewhat the same, only in my judgment does it better. Chagall is famous for his use of colors, and Weinstein brings out the colors by a variety of sound changes and styles.
Chagall's message of love being universal, the composer exhibits universality through various musical styles and devices. It is extraordinarily wonderful music -- it must be heard again and by more people. Properly orchestrated, it would be a valuable contribution to symphonic music.
It is rather presumptuous to relegate Beethoven and Mozart to a short summary paragraph, but that's what needs be done. Weinstein played Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata with all the brio it needed and also played Mozart's "Sonata No.19 in D. (K576)" in a fine display of both feeling and technique. Very well done indeed.
One extra bit of thanks goes to Weinstein and Vivian Jacobson for writing the best set of program notes this reviewer has ever seen. You read it, you know what's coming, and it actually deals with the music and not the psycho-social traumas of the composer caused by being deprived of chocolate by his/her parents. Weymouth artists, North Carolina Symphony, and everyone else -- please take note.
Vivian and Ralph Jacobson gave music lovers in the Sandhills a rare gift -- the gift of love and joy expressed through the music of a gifted young composer. Thanks to them, we received Chagall's message lovingly and eloquently expressed in sound. They have given much to the community in ways known only to a relative few; through this world premiere, they have given yet more and in the language of music so dear to our souls.
As for Seth Weinstein, here is a composer with a great future, a "good guy" to whom I expressed my highest compliment: "Next time, I'd pay money to hear your music." Judging by the reactions of a knowledgeable Weymouth audience, so will a lot of other folks. And it will be worth it!
Dr. Aceves is a former professor of social anthroplogy and ardent music lover who lives in Whispering Pines and who has on occasion written music reviews for The Pilot.
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