Genesis Suite – mediocre music, great idea

Genesis Suite, Barbican, 13.1.18


In 1943, as news of the Holocaust and the mass flight of refugees was coming through, a Jewish New York musician named Nat Shilkret had an idea for a musical response. He invited the most prominent composers of the day to collaborate in a piece of collective art: each would join him in writing a piece to accompany the reading of a section of the Book of Genesis. All who agreed but one – Stravinsky – were Jewish. He didn’t expect masterpieces to result, but that wasn’t the point: he wanted the work to raise awareness in the American public, but by the time it was premiered in 1945 that public had more pressing concerns.

Seven decades later, enter Gerard McBurney, Simon Rattle, and the LSO plus chorus with a novel idea for its revival. As McBurney points out, the music may be of its time, but the moral message was never more urgent. And since the piece always had a theatrical dimension, he has put together a collage of newsreel footage and photographs to be projected onto a gauze curtain suspended over the orchestra. A group of actors led by Simon Callow have been roped in to read.

It has to be said that the music was mostly undistinguished. Apart from the contributions by Schoenberg (a contrapuntal exploration of texture), Stravinsky (hieratic in the mode of Oedipus Rex), and Milhaud (terse and energised), it owed more to Hollywood than anywhere else, and the amplification was crude. But the cavalcade of images depicting hunger, flight, destruction, and death – culminating inevitably in an atomic explosion – gave the whole event an unforgettable gravity. Bartok, who had been too ill to contribute, was represented by a fizzing performance afterwards of his Concerto for Orchestra. There’s an idea here for a contemporary Shilkret to pick up and run with.


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