Paul Schoenfield: The New Gershwin?

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

Have you ever heard of Paul Schoenfield? Well, neither had I until a few days ago when I received a new CD from Argo (440 212-2) packed full of his exciting, melodious, highly rhythmic music.

Comparing him to George Gershwin may be stretching it a bit, but there are some similarities. Schoenfield also mixes classical with jazz and popular music forms. Schoenfield can write good tunes. Like Gershwin, Schoenfield is Jewish and influenced by Jewish folk music.

But Schoenfield occasionally adds one element to his mix that doesn't exist at all in Gershwin: sections of loud, dissonant modern music - the kind which critic Henry Pleasants once quipped was neither modern nor music. This is bound to turn off many a listener, including this one, and keep Schoenfield's name hidden from a wider public. This is unfortunate, since most of the Schoenfield represented on this CD is not only highly accessible, it's outright entertaining. If I could figure out how to program my programmable CD player, I would simply set it to skip the few-and-far- between disagreeable parts.

Gershwin always sounds as though his music were written by Gershwin, and not by anyone else. He was a thoroughly original and unique talent. Schoenfield, on the other hand, sometimes sounds like Gershwin, sometimes like Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Bartok, Ravel, Prokofieff, Mozart, Claude Bolling or Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Within a single composition Schoenfield can go from jazz to vaudeville to klezmer (a kind of Eastern European Jewish folk/jazz with a small band headed by a clarinet) to a Strauss waltz to blues to Dixieland, as he does in Vaudeville. Or he can go from dissonant modern to blues, big band and Broadway musical, as he does in Four Parables.

Schoenfield shows great energy and a musical sense of humor. He is a superb orchestrator, whereas Gershwin was just learning how to write for instruments other than the piano, and Gershwin's best symphonic compositions were orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. But, whereas Gershwin left us a wealth of beautiful music by the time he was abruptly taken from us at the age of 38, Schoenfield, at 47, is represented on only three previous recordings in the current Schwann Opus Catalog, and those he shares with other composers.

Judging by the new Argo release, which is devoted completely to Schoenfield, I hope that this middle-aged composer is hoarding a whole lot of compositions as worthy of being recorded as the three on this disc. They are all performed by the New World Symphony conducted by John Nelson - Four Parables (with Jeffrey Kahane, pianist), Vaudeville (with Wolfgang Basch, piccolo trumpeter), and Klezmer Rondos (with Carol Wincenc, flutist).

"A friend once suggested to me," Schoenfield writes, "that I take some life experiences and set them to music. The result was the Four Parables for piano and orchestra.... Each of the four movements musically treats an actual life encounter..."

The first movement, Rambling till the butcher cuts us down, was "a response to a debate surrounding the release of an aged quadriplegic murderer from prison." The music, reflecting the situation, is dissonant, disagreeable and difficult.

The second movement, Senility's ride, was inspired by a man the composer met in Vermont who was slowly going senile. "In his sounder moments," Schoenfield writes, "he would reflect on his present condition and his youth. Nostalgically, he would speak of his past vigor, his love of dancing, his life in South America, and how now this had all been taken away. During one of my last conversations with him he mused somewhat philosophically, 'Life is tantamount to a burlesque show.'" Schoenfield's music mirrors this description, "riding" from a pretty, Gershwin-like blues tune in the beginning, through some dissonant contemporary measures, to big band and flashy Broadway musical styles.

Elegy, the third movement, was written in memory of an acquaintance of the composer who, "being convinced by religious fanatics that seeing a physician was unnecessary, died needlessly during young adulthood." This story is more touching than the music, which I found lacking in melody and boring.

The final movement, Dog heaven - a jazzy, jubilant allegro molto - was inspired, the composer says, "by an encounter with two children whose mother had gotten rid of the family pet as a punishment. To assuage their pain, I made up this fanciful story about a jazz club in 'Dog Heaven', a place where the streets are lined with bones and there is a fire hydrant on every corner." The music is as much fun as the composer's description - jazzy and tuneful.

Vaudeville, a suite for piccolo trumpet, was written for the soloist in this recording. It consists of five movements which follow the form of a vaudeville show: Overture, Bear dance, Klezmers, Sketches, and Carmen Rivera. In between some of the acts is the master of ceremonies, represented by the piano. The last movement is a set of variations loosly based on the Brazilian song, Tico-Tico no fubo. The entire composition is light and fun. Nothing to skip here, even if you know how to make your CD player do magic tricks.

The final selection on this CD, Klezmer Rondos, makes use of Hasidic-style songs and dances, Eastern European modes, marches and Jewish folk songs. The piece is melodious, with some catchy tunes. The more I play it, the more I like it.

Schoenfield may not be Gershwin reincarnated, but I hope there's more of these long-form, jazz-influenced "classical" compositions where these came from. When it comes to 20th Century music, I certainly prefer Schoenfield to Schoenberg, and would like to hear more of him.

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