PASATIERI: Letter to Warsaw

PASATIERI Letter to Warsaw • Jane Eaglen (sop); Gerard Schwarz, cond; Music of Remembrance • NAXOS 8.559219 (70:34)

For those readers to whom the name of Pasatieri is unfamiliar, let me offer a brief summary: Now in his late 50s, Thomas Pasatieri was something of a sensation during the 1970s: a student of Giannini and Persichetti at the Juilliard School, he had revealed a prodigious compositional talent, especially within the realm of vocal music. His fifth opera, The Trial of Mary Lincoln, composed when he was 26, won an auspicious award and was televised nationally. Other operas followed quickly thereafter, and were produced by regional American companies with leading singers, who adored them, in the major roles. By the time he was 40, he had seventeen operas to his credit. However, for the most part, Pasatieri’s operas were vilified by critics, who seemed to bend over backwards to find justification for the most vicious invective. In essence, the criticisms were the standard charges made against traditional-style music during the 1960s and 70s: Music with lyrical melody and rich harmony—music that communicated emotion directly was simply not acceptable; it was a) warmed over Puccini, or b) a cheap, meretricious attempt to appeal to the unadventurous listener, or c) proof of the composer’s lack of aesthetic depth and/or sophistication, or d) shoddy trash not meriting serious consideration, or e) all of the above. One might look at this a little more deeply and surmise that much of the carping—especially that which came from other composers—was pure and simple envy that this kid, barely 30 years old, was captivating audiences to an extent that eluded most others toiling in the operatic field. Or maybe it had something to do with the impression made by Pasatieri’s own personality. I myself saw and heard quite a few of his operas, and they definitely exhibited their own distinctive and recognizable style. Some—Black Widow and Washington Square in particular—I loved, their arias haunting my memory for hours, even days; others made less of an impact. All seemed to suffer—to one extent or another—from a sense of haste, largely noted in certain infelicities of orchestration.

It was therefore quite a surprise to learn during the mid 1980s, when he was about 40, that Pasatieri had stopped writing operas and gone out to Hollywood to work as an orchestrator—not a composer—of filmscores. The orchestrations with which he is credited include The Shawshank RedemptionRoad to Perdition, American Beauty, and The Little Mermaid. However, he had not ceased “serious” composition altogether, continuing to write vocal, choral, and instrumental works that were performed locally, receiving little national attention. Then, apparently coinciding with a largely positive response to a 2002 New York revival of one of his operas, The Seagull, Pasatieri announced that he was moving back east, and maybe even returning to opera.

All this is relevant background to the new release at hand, the first new work of Pasatieri’s that I (and many others, I imagine) have heard in the past 20 years: a cantata commissioned by a Holocaust-related organization called Music of Remembrance, based on the poetry of a Polish cabaret performer named Pola Braun, who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto (along with pianist Wladyslav Szpilman, whose story was told in the film The Pianist) and, later, in the concentration camp at Majdanek, where she eventually perished while still in her early 30s. Pasatieri composed the work in 2003, and it had its premiere in Seattle, just two weeks before this review is written, in May, 2004, with the same performers appearing here. 

Although it is scored for soprano and chamber ensemble, I refer to the work as a cantata, rather than a song cycle, because only six poems are set, with six additional sections that are purely instrumental, the entirety totaling some 70 minutes. The instrumental ensemble comprises woodwind quartet, string quintet, trumpet, harp, and piano.

The style of the work is essentially the lyrical, unabashed neo-romanticism that has been Pasatieri’s mode of expression all along, with little suggestion of Hebraic inflection, aside from the prevalent use of minor-key tonality. The song settings are spread unevenly throughout the work, so, for example, at one point there are three consecutive instrumental sections. These instrumental portions reflect motivic interrelationships with the vocal sections, and seem to be abstract elaborations of mood. The poems, sung in English translation, begin with reflections on the contempt in which Jews have been held, and move on to a nostalgic longing for home, and the universal suffering of mothers who lose their sons to violence; the work culminates in the dread of inevitable doom, the inconsequentiality of the individual in the face of mass annihilation, and the senseless refusal to give up hope. Individually, the sections are quite appealing, displaying the composer’s characteristic insinuations of motifs into one’s consciousness—the 5-minute Lento that precedes the final long section is an especially beautiful example. But taken as a whole, this very large work gives many indications of over-extension, so that the whole seems a good deal less than the sum of its parts. One has the impression of an attempt to turn one original concept into something else, and, without knowing much about the genesis of the work, one can only guess: for example, perhaps a request to turn what was originally a much shorter cycle of six songs into something larger, but without utilizing greater performing forces. In any case, a work of this dimension, and dealing with subject matter so extreme in its tragic brutality, would seem to require a deeper and broader range of expression. Instead, the work remains largely confined to a tone of mournful melancholia—more in keeping with romantic disappointment, say, than imminent genocide. I suppose that one might say in defense, we’ve had the large-scale treatment in movies like Schindler’s ListThe Sorrow and the Pity, and music like Pergament’s The Jewish Song and some of the pieces actually composed in the concentration camps. This, one might argue, is more intimate—one woman’s reflections. But if so, this one woman exhibits a rather restricted emotional range. 

The performance is generally quite good: The instrumentalists are largely members of the Seattle Symphony, and the participation of someone as distinguished as Jane Eaglen is a coup of which most composers can only dream. Yet in truth, her huge voice at times overpowers the intimacy of the music and, at others, is even a bit harsh. Then there is the matter of Pasatieri’s orchestration, which many commentators—myself included—have considered to be the major weakness of his operas—a stridency that might be attributed to overly close spacing of harmony and the misguided use of the trumpet as a lyrical voice. But I think that Pasatieri’s apparent success as a commercial orchestrator can be taken as evidence that he knows what he is doing, and for some reason intends the orchestral effects he creates.

In summary, Letter to Warsaw can be seen as an ambitious if flawed entry of some significance in the gradually dwindling succession of traditionally neo-romantic-styled works as we move further into the 21st century.