On the evidence of some of the "Radical Jewish Culture" displayed on John Zorn's Tzadik label in recent years, and now of the American Jewish Music series assembled by the Milken Archives and issued by Naxos, this branch of contemporary music is a vital one with much to interest listeners of any faith (or none at all). The centerpiece of this disc of compositions by Bruce Adolphe is a set of Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering, setting texts in the old Hebrew-Spanish language of Iberian Jewry. The idea is unusual, and the addition of a formidable technical challenge on top of these highly emotional texts threatens to make the whole enterprise a bit gimmicky: Adolphe sets most of the songs for the unlikely trio of voice, horn, and guitar. Yet, thanks in large part to the talents of David Jolley, who can make his horn whisper when he wants to, the enterprise succeeds beautifully. Each of these seven songs solves the problem of balancing these disparate forces differently, and integrates the solution with the sense of the text. The album is rounded out with two larger pieces: a 20-minute scene from Adolphe's English-language opera Mikhoels the Wise, the story of a Russian Jewish actor who was murdered by the Soviet secret police, and the short Yiddish oratorio Out of the Whirlwind, a work commemmorating the Allied liberation of Germany's World War II-era concentration camps. Naxos, not a label known for consistently great sound, does very well with the difficult dynamic range here. This disc was nominated for a U.S. Grammy award in 2004.
Bruce Adolphe: Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering; Mikhoels the Wise (excerpt); Out of the Whirlwind Review
by James Manheim