The Escape of Jonah
a vernacular oratorio
Kovler used an array of musical styles – including classical, jazz, Sondheimian Broadway and Klezmer — to convey the muddle of Jonah’s mind.
Leah Burrows The Jewish Advocate
The Escape of Jonah retells the story of the biblical prophet Jonah from today’s point of view, bringing together the sounds of a nine- piece band, Jazz choir, soloists and electronics. The ‘vernacular oratorio’ juxtaposes the biblical text performed by the choir with the agitated speech of Jonah, the wandering Jew. The text of the oratorio libretto was originally written in Hebrew by Sivan Beskin. In the new English version, by Janice Silverman Rebibo, the part of Jonah is voiced by the trumpet.
Jonah is at risk of obliteration, drowning in a sea of conflicting influences. This eclectic piece objectifies the contemporary overload of our times. It depicts a level and range of sensory, societal and personal demands that obscure still small voices and thrust us into avoidance. Like Jonah, we may even refuse to heed the calls and cries to us from without and within, so prominent in the language of the Hebrew text of the Bible’s Book of Jonah. Kovler’s own performance throughout his piece offers an ongoing dialogue with Jonah, musically and verbally illuminating his predicament.
In Act 1, a choir of angels tries to get a rise out of the recalcitrant, sleepy Jonah and his stifled trumpet, goading him to “get up and go” to Nineveh. Jonah runs the other way – to Jaffa – and is whisked off on a ship to Tarshish.
In Act 2, aboard this “cowardly crate of a ship,” a band of sailors (saxophone, trombone, percussion, etc.) begins by welcoming the newcomer into their musical midst but is soon disenchanted. The angels’ choir instigates an outrageous storm at sea and informs the sailors that Jonah, a Hebrew, is at the root of their trouble. Jonah is cast overboard.
Act 3 finds Jonah in the belly of the fish, after being assaulted from all sides by increasingly conflicting elements. In the surreal but seductive coziness of the fish’s innards (“Is this a dream?”), Jonah hears the Siren’s Song, a lethal lullaby. He is tempted to totally give in and give up. It is within this very lull, however, at the last possible instant, that Jonah is able to grapple with the utter muddle, an eclecticism of musical genres and quotations from classical, jazz, broadway, klezmer and Israeli pop. He “hears his calling” and rises to the occasion, finding his way and making his own voice heard in a trumpet solo of wonder and praise (the Hasidic niggun, Peliah). Jonah’s journey concludes with a musical wink, a raucous laugh at the rollercoaster challenge of it all.
Written by Janice Silverman Rebibo
March 8, 2009
CFA Hall Boston University
Ezra Weller - Trumpet
Reut Rivka - Soprano
English Libretto by
Janice Silverman Rebibo
Based on a Hebrew poem by Sivan Beskin
The Escape of Jonah is, in many ways, a hybrid. It combines the traditional and the contemporary, the expected and the seemingly out-of-place. For a lack of a better word, Kovler called his composition an oratorio, a work that tells a story without dramatic action, basically an opera without the actors. But Kovler’s oratorio does have actors: the musicians. The nine-piece brass band moves around the stage, acts and even talks. The story is both Biblical and modern. Kovler uses the wayward prophet as a symbol of his generation: overloaded with information and a little lazy. “Jonah is the ultimate procrastinator,” Kovler said. He is a man with a great voice who is reluctant to use it.
In the original Hebrew version, Kovler played the role of Jonah, using spoken word to give voice to the character. In the English version, however, Jonah will be voiced by a trumpet, played by Ezra Weller. Surrounding Jonah is the brass band and a jazz choir. The choir’s libretto, written by the poet Janice Silverman Rebibo, mixes Biblical text and colloquial speech. It was inspired by the Israeli Sivan Beskin’s poem.
Kovler used an array of musical styles – including classical, jazz, Sondheimian Broadway and Klezmer — to convey the muddle of Jonah’s mind. “After being so confused by all these different styles, it is only when he is by himself that he finally understands he has the ability to say things,” Kovler said. “Only when he is alone, can he find his own voice.”
Leah Burrows The Jewish Advocate
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