…[Clarinetist Vasko] Dukovski brought clarity and agility to both works, and also to Gerald Cohen’s “Voyagers” (2017), in which he joined the Cassatt players, on several kinds of clarinets, in a tribute to the two Voyager spacecrafts, launched in 1977 and still hurtling through space. There are, as you might expect, passages that evoke the eerie loneliness of the spacecrafts’ journeys. But much of the work is vigorously animated.

Cohen based parts of the score on pieces from the Voyagers’ golden discs – selections of music, natural sounds, speech and photographs, meant to convey an impression of Earth to distant civilizations that might decode them. His choices were a Renaissance dance, a Beethoven quartet and a Hindustani vocal piece, but though he briefly quotes each, he quickly deconstructs them and spins imaginative fantasies around their essential elements in his own freewheeling, largely neo-Romantic style…

As a composer of vocal music—opera, choral, solo—I am always on the prowl for texts for vocal works and for stories which have potential as operas. Very often, as I read a novel or hear some fascinating true tale, my “operatic mind” starts imagining what the story would be like on stage with music, thinking about both the creative aspects (what opportunities are there for cool vocal ensembles in this story?) and practical ones (would this need too huge a cast to make it work as an opera?). There are such a variety of types of stories that could conceivably be transformed by composers and librettists when creating an opera; many recent operas have been based on well-known movies or novels, or on recent events in history. But sometimes a riveting plot for a dramatic work can be found in the stories of the people in one’s own life—and the close personal connections in such stories can be significant in generating the emotional energy needed to create and present a new opera…

“Sometimes, truth is stranger than opera. In this touching work by composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort (seen Jan. 25), Jaap, an unhappily married fellow, falls for Ina, an engaged woman just before they are both swept away by the Nazis along as part of a group of 400 Amsterdam Jews… Baritone Gideon Dabi (Jaap) and soprano Inna Dukach (Ina) delivered Cohen’s accessible writing with admirable control and ideal enunciation… Company music director Ari Pelto… guided a solid, sympathetic accompaniment through the score’s many mood shifts and changes in meter. “

The world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me opens this Thursday evening—and few people know better than Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto the long and exciting process of getting this new opera ready for the stage. Over the past five years, he’s spent countless hours working through the piece with composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort, then working with stage director Omer Ben Seadia and her creative team as they got the production ready. And now, after a breakneck rehearsal schedule over the past month, Pelto is thrilled for Opera Colorado audiences who are just days away from experiencing the beautiful music and powerful message of Steal a Pencil for Me. Today we check in with Pelto about his experiences with this opera…

The real life story for a new opera was right under composer Gerald Cohen’s nose. As cantor of the Shaarei Tikvah synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, Cohen had known Holocaust survivors Ina and Jaap Polak — members of the congregation there — for over twenty years when he conceived the idea of setting their story to music. Their romance inside a concentration camp had already been the basis of a film documentary called ” Steal a Pencil for Me,” and Cohen easily convinced the couple to consent to and participate in an operatic retelling. But Jaap was 97 at the time and Ina 87, so they urged him to write it quickly. The two were among a group of Dutch Jews deported to the Bergen-Belsen camp in the last year of World War II…

World Premiere of Voyagers, for String Quartet and Clarinet at Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History, November 28, 2017:
One of the most important tasks for the current classical music world is bringing the wonderful range of today’s classical compositions and the spectacular talents of its performers to contemporary audiences in new and engaging ways. The Cassatt String Quartet, with clarinetist Vasko Dukovski, certainly endeavored to do that with their performance of Gerald Cohen’s Voyagers, for String Quartet and Clarinet…

“Yedid Nefesh” is based on a simple, sweet Sephardic setting of a mystical Jewish poem. Together, the three [performers] bring to life the piece’s rich tone and vibrant colors, highlighting both the vivacious and the meditative aspects of the delicate melody. Though each piece on “Sea of Reeds” has its own distinct character and style, Cohen’s gorgeous lyricism flows sweetly through each of them, tying together his exploration of the clarinet’s many diverse colors and dynamics.

First meeting with Cohen’s music and a rewarding experience overall…The initial “Variously Blue” and the poignant “Slow, Still, Tranquil” (the latter from the Yedid Nefesh cycle) are this writer’s preferred episodes, a number of unheralded turns and a range of adroitly organized contrapuntal climates interpreted by impeccable performers utterly involved with the material. When “harmonious virtuosity” rhymes with “moderation”, that’s OK with me.

Three cheers to Navona Records for capturing these performances and sending them out into the world…[In “Yedid Nefesh”], Cohen’s imagination, sense of balance and contrast are expertly employed, making this work a truly cohesive whole and the highlight of the recording. “Grneta Variations” continues to demonstrate just how good Cohen is at taking a germ of an idea and expanding it into a varied, logical journey into fine art and personal meaning.

This impeccably recorded album features music that is smart, reflective, pensive, and ultimately very melodic. Cohen is obviously a man who loves making music and his passion shines through clearly on each and every track. This one will most certainly stand the test of time.