American Record Guide: "For a Look or a Touch" CD Review

Publication: 
American Record Guide

Heggie: For a Look or a Touch 
Schwarz: In Memoriam 
Laitman: The Seed of Dream

Music of Remembrance (MOR) is helping us gain deeper appreciation of the tragic losses of life suffered in the Holocaust. This recording brings to consciousness the terrible consequences of the Holocaust to homosexuals, a subject that has not been given the attention it deserves, in large part because it has been hard to find personal accounts of homosexuals persecuted by the Third Reich. Artistic Director Mina Miller comments: "For many years Music of Remembrance had envisioned commissioning a work that would address this tragedy. Our challenge was to find a composer who could communicate its moral and historical importance, and do so in a way that would be intimate rather than didactic." She succeeded brilliantly in commissioning Jack Heggie to write For a Look or a Touch.

Heggie (b.1961) has established himself as a significant opera composer (Dead Man Walking, The End of the Affair). The present 34-minute work, skillfully scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, can be varying categorized as a chamber opera, a theater piece, or a quasi song cycle. Whatever category it fits into, it is a brilliant, moving work, and only a hard-core homophobe can fail to be moved by it. Adapted by Gene Scheer from an actual diary of 19-year-old Manfred Lewin written for his lover Gad Beck, it tells the story of the visitation of Manfred's ghost to his lover 60 years after his murder at Auschwitz in 1942. Gad, who survived the Holocaust, has worked hard to forget the events that separated them and led to his partner's death, but in this visitation he finds healing through acknowledging how integral their love has always been in his life. Manfred is sung by the vibrantly-voiced Morgan Smith, while Gad's lines are spoken by Julian Patrick, a veteran member of Seattle Opera—until the final bars where the two hum together in a moving expression that Gad has found a way to transcend the devastation of the past and reconnect with the power of love.

The opening scene immediately establishes a haunting tone and introduces the key motif that returns again to bring the work to completion and resolution: "Do you remember?" A central scene uses jazz and swing elements to characterize the days when gay love could find a safe haven before it was crushed by the Nazis.

For a Look or a Touch is the longest and most powerful work on this gripping release, but the accompanying works are also important expressions of remembrance. Gerard Schwartz's In Memoriam (2005) for solo cello and string quartet was written for his son Julian when he was selected to be the first recipient of MOR's David Tonkonogui Memorial Award. Julian recorded the work when he was 15, and his remarkably mature playing produces a large and lovely sound. If you heard this work without knowing who composed it, you might take it for a post-romantic work by its Straussian touches. Here the remembrance has less to do with the Holocaust; it is primarily in memory of Seattle cellist David Tonkonogui, but it serves as a good transition between the two vocal works.

The Seed of Dream (2004) for baritone, cello, and piano sets five poems of Abraham Sutzkever, Yiddish poet and member of the Vilna (Lithuania) Ghetto Underground. Lori Laitman has a great gift for song-writing, and these songs skillfully employ a variety of styles to convey the pathos of the Holocaust. 'I Lie in This Coffin' describes the poet's experience of hiding in a coffin to elude the Nazis. Beginning with low tones from the piano suggesting the buried spirits of those persecuted in the Holocaust, the song rises to a note of encouragement as the poet remembers the spirit of his dead sister but then returns to the reality of a life that is like being buried alive. 'A Load of Shoes' is a sort of danse macabre as the poet happens to see his mother's shoes among others carried on a cart after she had been murdered. The tender and lyrical 'To My Child' is a lament on the murder of the poet's son. 'Beneath the Whiteness of Your Stars' combines and alternates a pizzicato habanera rhythm by the cello with a melody written in the Vilna Ghetto by Abraham Brudno as it contrasts the natural beauty of the world with human suffering. 'No Sad Songs, Please' ends the cycle on a note of hope with the loveliest of melodies. This is very fine song-writing and one must hope that Laitman's songs will continue to gain the recognition they deserve. Parce's baritone does not have the same magisterial quality as Smith's, but his vocalizing is very solid and his reading of these songs is full of poignancy.

Because all of these works are new, perhaps these comments will give you a sense that this is a very important recording not just for its musical merits but for the social statement it makes, calling us to remember and mourn the inhumanity of the Holocaust.

Concise notes and full texts are included.