The ASO Passover Offering: Paul Dessau’s “Haggadah shel Pesach”

Tonight the American Symphony Orchestra offered up a splendid finale to their season, appropriately timed to fall during Passover: Paul Dessau's large oratorio for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, "Haggadah shel Pesach," in what is claimed to be it United States premiere performance.  Leon Botstein led a dozen vocal soloists, the Collegiate Chorale Singers, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and, of course, the ASO, at Carnegie Hall.

Max Brod, the librettist, took the traditional Passover Seder service as his outline and filled it in with narrative, mostly Biblically derived, to give a fuller account of the Passover story than is usually recited in a typical American Passover observance.  Indeed, the drama of Moses seeking and then leading the liberation of his people is suitably enacted, with the Song at the Sea being a major highlight of the work, although I thought that Dessau was actually at his best towards the end when setting the songs traditionally sung to conclude the Seder, Dayenu and the Chad Gadya. 

Now, one must take into account that Dessau was a composer of his times, and this piece is very much an example of German modernism of the 1930s – although it was performed here in the Hebrew version rather than the German.  One can understand why there have been few performances and, purportedly, none before this one in the U.S.  While the work is well orchestrated and arranged for chorus, and must be interesting to play, it is a bit bland at times, there are stretches of boredom, and the quota of really catchy tunes is small.  It is the kind of piece that you are glad to have heard once, but probably don't yearn to hear again right away.  That said, this was certainly a well-prepared, enthusiastic performance. 

The one really established star among the vocal soloists was Sanford Sylvan, cast in the leading role of Moses but quite underused, since Moses is given surprisingly little to sing in light of his central role in the story.  The most impressive of the soloists, from my perspective, was Denis Sedov, who sang the role of the service leader with a big, beautiful sonorous bass voice – although perhaps he had a bit too much singing to do, since his voice seemed to be breaking up a bit in the final pages.  His bio indicates he has been busy singing lots of opera all over the place, but that he hasn't been much exposed in New York yet, so I hope the scouts were out tonight and that we'll be hearing him in local houses.

The choruses and the orchestra covered themselves in glory, and Leon Botstein kept the entire thing afloat and well-coordinated.  It would be nice if there were money for them to make a recording….

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