- Dybbuk, ballet
- Fancy Free, ballet
The Nashville Symphony has won considerable acclaim for its recordings of American orchestral music. This is unsurprising, in a sense, for musicians in the group by virtue of their location in a popular-music capital, have been immersed in vernacular American music for a long time -- and so much American classical music is nourished by popular roots. This is true for few composers more than for Leonard Bernstein, and the Nashville musicians do well with an intriguing Bernstein ballet program here. There are plenty of other recordings to choose from in the case of "Fancy Free," an exuberant youthful work drenched in jazz and blues, but defining harmonic realms that do not belong to either one. Pianist Steve Kummer does not quite do justice to the sharp jazz accents of the score, but a plus here is the relaxed performance of the original Bernstein popular song "Big Stuff" at the beginning of the ballet (Bernstein specifies that it should be sounding from a jukebox as the curtain goes up). Vocalist Abby Burke evokes Billie Holiday, who later recorded the song. The real feature of interest on the disc is Bernstein's 1974 ballet "Dybbuk," which is harder to find than "Fancy Free." The work is based on a famous Yiddish-language play by Russian Jewish writer S. Ansky (Shloyme Zanvel Rappoport), who closely studied the folklore of the Eastern European Jews among whom he had grown up. The story seems tailor-made for ballet; it concerns a young man and woman who are engaged to be married, but their plans are frustrated when the girl's father betrothes her to a wealthier suitor. Her original intended invokes the help of the spirit world. This causes his death, but also enables him to become a spirit, a dybbuk, that possesses the young woman on her wedding day. Bernstein places heavy emphasis on occult elements, associated with the Kabbalah branch of Jewish mystical thought, that actually have only a moderate role in the original play. His score effectively infuses traditional Jewish materials into the atonal procedures mandated by the cultural commissars of the time, even if some of the music associated with the rabbinical attempt to exorcise the dybbuk could have been used in another exorcism drama of that period. With the renewed interest in Kabbalah, in Ansky (a fascinating figure whose activities included Schindler-like attempts to rescue some of the perhaps 200,000 Jews who died during World War I), and in Bernstein's eclectic procedures, the time is ripe for a reevaluation of this work, which was panned at its first appearance. The Nashville Symphony under Andrew Mogrelia makes the best possible case for the music. The same cannot be said for the Naxos booklet, which instead of describing the action that accompanies each number subjects the reader to a pointless blow-by-blow summary of the music.