Eric Salzman: Composer, Author, Music Theater Innovator



Review of Accord/Discord

Eleanora Sturms, “Notes from a Cultural Journalist in New York (the 2009-10 Winter Season)” Laiks (Time), Latvian weekly newspaper, March 13, 2010.

At the beginning of December, 2009, the program “Accord-Discord” was performed for three nights in a row at The Cell in New York City, sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Opera. The ensemble consisted of Laila Salins, vocalist, the excellent violinists Machiko Ozawa and Marc Levine, cellist Leo Grinhauz and the internationally acclaimed accordionist William Schimmel. The musical intelligence with which this cabaret program was conceived, the high quality of the playing of the string musicians, and the colorful arrangements which tastefully incorporated the accordion, made this event feel, instead, like an emotionally charged chamber music concert.

The ones who may have been most surprised by this cabaret program, which was executed to perfection, were those of us who are familiar with Laila Salins only as a classical music singer. The central aim of this well-blended ensemble seemed to be to make use of her powerful musical and emotional communicative abilities within these rich timbres and refined instrumentations. The results were brilliant!

The repertoire presented was quite varied: Brecht Suite by the American composer Eric Salzman (who has composed widely in the music theater realm), based on the play The Good Person of Sezchuan by the master German playwright Bertold Brecht; tango music by Osvaldo Pugliese, arranged by William Schimmel; and Laila Salins’ cycle of Latvian ballads, along with original music, entitled Saskandinot. In addition, the program included two solo accordion pieces by Schimmel and Salzman, which were crammed full with technical virtuosity.

The program began with the Latvian cycle, and here the vocalist’s free-flowing introductions to the songs allowed the audience to be intimately drawn into this musical world. It even allowed those of us whose roots are based in Latvia to view our emigrant existence and purpose in a new light, seeing that the singer, who was born in the U.S., identifies so strongly with her unique cultural heritage. The music which followed attested to the strength of these bonds. Laila Salins accompanied herself on guitar on a few songs, which included ballads based on the poetry of Aleksandrs Chaks and John Ziemelnieks, as well as a tango by composer Oskar Stroks, whose music was popular throughout Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s. But I was particularly looking forward to her original composition (“Eat of me, drink of me”), based on the rich imagery of her father, the poet Gunars Salins, which was fully realized in this arrangement (more so than in her recent CD). All in all, the dark and resigned music seemed to complement the poetry well, paired with the characteristic ebbs and tides of the singer’s emotional swells. The emotional honesty of her full-blooded singing seemed to evoke a strong resonance in her audience.

Eric Salzman’s Brecht Suite (sung in French), was unique and fresh, with echoes of Kurt Weill’s work in the vocal lines, which seemed to have been composed for Laila Salins’ voice and dramatic gifts. The somewhat gloomy messages of Brecht’s text created a dynamic contrast to the seemingly limitless vocal and emotional amplitudes of the singer’s realization of this work, especially in both parts of the “Opium Song,” which was truly moving and heartfelt.

An altogether different experience was to be found in the ceaseless sensual and sensitive musical exploration within the tango suite of Osvaldo Pugliese’s music that followed. The arranger of this suite was William Schimmel, whose accomplished accordion playing bewitched us and lent an authentic Argentinean charm to the pieces. The singer’s soulful, emotionally charged interpretation of these songs was held in place by her innate musicality, swaying even the most hardened and culturally sophisticated New Yorkers in the audience. And the Latvians among them were especially proud that our very own Laila Salins was the very heart and soul of this uplifting concert.