In his later years, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco often returned to the Bible as a source of inspiration. In 1953 he wrote Songs of the Shulamite, a work for voice, flute, harp and string quartet, set to verses from the Song of Songs. Performed for the first time in Los Angeles in 1963 under the auspices of the University of Judaism, the work remained unpublished and unperformed for decades. Samuel Magill, former Associate Principal Cello, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and today Principal Cello, Western Piedmont Symphony, wanted to explore and champion this unknown work. Sam and his collaborators in the North Carolina-based ensemble Sono Auros – flutist Lucian Rinando and harpist Grace Ludtke – along with guest artists soprano Jodi Burns, violinists Janet Orenstein and Stephanie Ezerman, and violist Maureen Michels will perform this cycle on 17 May 2023 as part of a concert program at Temple Emanuel of Greensboro, North Carolina. The event will surely be the work’s first performance in the twenty-first century! Sam tells us more about the project in the following interview.
Interview with Samuel Magill by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco – May 2023
How did you come to know about Songs of the Shulamite and what attracted you to create a performance of this work?
The members of Sono Auros are always looking for music which includes flute, cello, and harp. I went looking at the Library of Congress catalog, and here was this fascinating work I had never heard of. The more I knew about it, the more I was determined to perform it! Plus, I have always been an admirer of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music, especially after I heard the Houston Symphony’s fantastic recording of the Cello Concerto!
Tell us briefly about Sono Auros and the ensemble of guest performers who will participate in this concert.
Lucian Rinando and I have had a trio with various harpists for more than 30 years. We were originally called The Elysian Ensemble, but a few years ago we thought we needed a more current sounding name. After moving to North Carolina, we found the wonderful harpist Grace Ludtke, and by 2021 we had met Janet Orenstein, Professor of Violin at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; then Stephanie Ezerman, Principal of the 2nd Violins at the Greensboro Symphony. I already knew our violist, Maureen Michels, Assistant Principal Viola at Greensboro Symphony. Then came the more challenging task of finding a soprano, and after a concert in May 2022, in which Jodi Burns sang the Strauss Four Last Songs so magnificently with the Western Piedmont Symphony (I am Principal Cello there), I knew right away that I would ask her.
How did the collaboration with Temple Emanuel come about?
We happen to live just three blocks away from the Temple, and we were so struck by this imposing edifice that, while out for a walk, we happened upon Rabbi Andy Koren and his wife, Michal. We introduced ourselves, and they gave us a tour! It was very clear that the sanctuary is perfect for a concert. The fact that the text of the work is taken directly from the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, often called the Pentateuch, is very relevant to our program and to Temple Emanuel as well. Also, Rabbi Andy Koren informed us that he studied the verses in depth in graduate school. Then we knew this was to be a perfect fit!
What are your impressions of the piece so far?
It is set in a lush, sensuous, very tonal, language. Mario’s music is drawn from many sources, all beautifully combined into a language which is highly descriptive, and is reminiscent at times of the music of his compatriot Respighi, but also of Pizzetti and Malipiero. There are hints of Impressionism, but the music is often neoclassical at the same time. He wrote beautifully for all the instruments, and I believe audiences will really find themselves transported by its depth of imagery and of feeling. The flute and harp are dominant in the scoring, which is in itself complimentary to the verses, because both instruments arose from antiquity.
Do you find it has a lot in common with other works you know by Mario? Were there any surprises?
Castelnuovo-Tedesco was in many respects a post-Romantic composer, and Songs of the Shulamite are very similar to, say, the Second Violin Concerto [“The Prophets”], or a work I have heard but not played, I nottambuli for cello and piano. This gorgeous tone poem has, in its lush imagery, the culture of Spain coming through so very vividly. I also have been very impressed with the Piano Quintets, the Piano Trios, and the Cello Sonata, op. 50.
How does it feel to perform a work that hasn’t seen the light of day in decades?
I absolutely love it, and it has actually been my mission in life since I was 14! I am one of those people who are fascinated by reading the back covers of hundreds of pieces of music, which show all the other works they publish. Ever since high school I was fascinated by the very mention of such forgotten composers as Benjamin Godard, or Georges Pfeiffer—what was this music like? Also combing through dusty old 19th century scores in libraries. That was how I found out that Franco Alfano wrote a distinguished body of chamber music; indeed he was NOT just that man who completed Turandot! This August, 2023, the third and final volume of Alfano’s complete chamber music, consisting of the Three String Quartets, is to be released on the Naxos label. I and my wonderful colleagues remain the only people in the world to have ever recorded this music! All three volumes are World Premiere recordings. A million thanks to Scott Dunn, Elmira Darvarova, and Craig and Mary Ann Mumm!
Thank you, Sam, for creating what promises to be a very memorable event! We are grateful to you and your colleagues, as well as to Rabbi Koren, for your enthusiasm for Mario’s music. I am very much looking forward to the performance.