"David and Jonathan"
by Bill Zakariasen
The Westsider, June 7, 2001
Did the biblical heroes David and Jonathan really love each other
"that" way? What about Damon and Pythias, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck,
Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, or Will and Grace (sorry, Will and
Jack)? The first pair’s relationship has provided fodder for biblical
scholars for over two millennia and despite the ranting of
fundamentalist Jews whose favorite book of the Pentateuch is Leviticus,
bisexuality seemed the norm in the long post-Mosaic era.
During David’s time, most Israelites were soldiers first and dogmatists
second and, like their contemporaries in Greece, were encouraged to
love and defend their soldier friends in ways not exactly platonic, as
much as their wives. One American-Jewish composer, 30-year-old Stefan
Weisman, subscribes to that thesis, as demonstrated last Tuesday in
Symphony Space, where the Gay Gotham Chorus and the Cosmopolitan
Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Babcock gave the world premiere of
his cantata David and Jonathan as part of their Spring Rhapsody concert.
'The text of David and Jonathan, adapted from the Old Testament by Meg
Smith, is provocative (for the record, she’s straight and
Episcopalian) and so its Weisman’s beautiful score. It’s initially
surprising that the composer resists the temptation to illustrate the
violent aspect of the story (e.g. Saul’s attempt to murder David, the
fatal battle of Gilboa) in sound, and instead the whole 25-minute
cantata is a model of notable refinement, even during the most famous
passage in Samuel II ("Your love for me was more wonderful than the
love of a woman.") there is no breast-beating.
Weisman obviously views the events as mainly a love story, not an epic.
The score is consistently engrossing, pleasingly tonal with dissonance
attractively placed at crucial points (the adventurous choral writing
is particularly ear-catching), and well worth hearing again.
Performance-wise, the varied program all evening was rewarding. The Gay
Gotham Chorus is smaller than its more celebrated local counterpart
(The New York City Gay Men’s Chorus), but it’s especially impressive
for its attention to balance and subtle variations in dynamics. The
incidental soloists and the Cosmopolitan players likewise did well. A
special highlight of the evening was the splendid rendition of the
Brahms Alto Rhapsody, with the Met mezzo Stephanie Blythe as soloist.
Blythe’s huge, immaculately focused voice and formidable personality
were, again, rare pleasures – in a period celebrating too many vocal
bantamweights, she’s something else.