Monday, October 19, 2015

CD Review: Judith Clurman Conducts in the Holiday Spirit

By Erica Miner

In her two splendid holiday CDs, Cherished Moments: Songs of the Jewish Spirit (2014) and Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas (to be released Oct. 30, 2015), distinguished conductor Judith Clurman ( displays the impressive skills of her Essential Voices USA (EVUSA) ( ensemble with inspiring effect. Available in plenty of time to prepare one’s psyche for the arrival of the holiday season, listeners both religious and nonreligious will feel moved by the genuine emotion elicited by these deeply touching recordings on the Sono Luminus label. 

The Emmy and Grammy nominated Clurman, whose stellar musical accomplishments include projects with Harvard University, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Curtis Institute of Music, has generated wide acclaim for her achievements with EVUSA. In these albums she conducts with verve and sensitivity, showing her versatility and producing a musical wave that washes over the listener in songs that produce the warm feelings associated with the repertoire and the season. The ensemble itself, which performs regularly at Carnegie Hall, is comprised of professionals and volunteers of the highest caliber and is exemplary of the pinnacle of vocal performance. 

Cherished Moments, compiling several centuries of Jewish sacred and folk-based music, demonstrates Clurman’s closeness to the Jewish faith developed over a childhood brought up in the music of the synagogue of her childhood. The mix of traditional songs in multiple moods and tones, handsomely adapted arranged by Clurman and some laudable colleagues, are beautifully sung with sweet yet profound emotion and gorgeously homogenous choral sound, offering a generous sample of the spirit Clurman is hoping to portray. 

Such songs as Enosh and Oseh Shalom evoke introspection and deep thought, as do the lovely melodies of V’erastich Li, nicely spun by tenor Michael Slattery. M’chalkeil Chayim, an instrumental interlude, will elicit heartfelt sentiment especially in those who are linked with the Jewish spirit. 

As a centerpiece, the Songs of Freedom cycle conjures the atmosphere of Chanukah celebrations with unique arrangements of tunes that Jewish children have sung for countless generations. Oh Chanukah is especially engaging, rejoicing the season with a lively Klezmer background. Circle of Life, another multitrack cycle with baritone Cantor Bruce Ruben as soloist, captures the introspective aspects of the Jewish experience. Al Hanissim, commissioned by Clurman from prominent American composer Paul Schoenfield and based on the traditional Jewish prayer of thanksgiving, combines virtuoso Brahms-like piano writing with rhythmically dynamic vocal lines. 

Holiday Harmonies adds rising young operatic singers as guest artists to charming arrangements of such favorites as Angels We Have Heard on High, Oh Holy Night and Merry Christmas Wishing Well. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who “rocked the house” portraying Jane Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera, interprets Silent Night with touching sensitivity and fullness of voice. Likewise, in Reger’s The Virgin’s Slumber Song, Barton soothes the soul with her fluid, gently rocking quality. Maureen McKay, currently singing the soprano lead in Seattle Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, floats tones angelically in Jennifer Higdon’s Love Came Down. McKay and Barton collaborate to bring the cycle a lively close to with the ever-popular We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Pianist Tedd Firth and harpist Stacey Shames accompanied the two singers with great delicacy and perceptiveness. The orchestral accompaniments provide a firm backing on both recordings, with fine instrumental playing that supports beautifully yet never sounds forced, meshing perfectly with the vocal lines. 

All in all, Judith Clurman has assembled a beautiful musical tapestry woven of superbly performed songs that will help create a memorable holiday season. 

EVUSA/Judith Clurman; Label: Sono Luminus LLC. Produced by David Frost 

Photo used by permission of: Frank Wang

Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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