Still, in 1937, Toch felt a need to make a public statement. The emigre composer, newly arrived in Los Angeles, had just learned of the death of his mother in Vienna and of Hitler's armies now in his native land. He could not help but identify those events with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. With the help of a noted local rabbi, Jacob Sonderling, he fashioned an English-language text based on the haggada, and wrote a cantata for chorus, orchestra, four vocal soloists and narrator. The work was premiered in Los Angeles in 1938.
The cantata tries too much and too little. The narration is a bit stilted (although at the recent performance, it needn't have been quite so lifeless as it was when read by Leonard Nimoy). The choruses and solos are mostly prayers and psalms. In his Los Angeles years, Toch, who showed an experimental streak in Vienna, had two musical styles. He wrote serious symphonies, string quartets and other works in a complex, often grim but also gripping, highly chromatic style. He also scored films in a populist, though never trivial, way (he was especially good at capturing the angst of noir and the weirdness of science-fiction).
For his cantata, he wanted immediate communication and wrote in a manner that is even more direct than that of his film music. The music is far from easy, as the recent tentative performance proved. But in trying to create a work that approached common vernacular and still expressed deep meaning and intense emotions, Toch never quite found the balance. A childlike simplicity, sweet and innocent, pervades the score. I kept wishing, in hearing it, that he had followed the example of Bach and Wagner, which was to stretch the idiom of his music as far as he could in the search of the most penetrating expression.
Even so, the ending, a tender plea for peace that was eloquently sung by baritone Michael Sokol, got to me. On the day of the concert, Israel had sent its tanks into the West Bank city of Ramallah. With the Israelis and Palestinians appearing blinded by their sense of biblical prerogatives, the Passover story can seem to justify barbarity. The genocidal Pharaoh ordered the killing of every newborn Jewish male child. When the Pharaoh refused to let the Jews go, Aaron, Moses' brother, threw down his rod and through divine intervention caused the plagues upon the Egyptian people, culminating in a visit by the Angel of Death to the firstborn in every Egyptian household. To my mind, both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat had come to seem intolerant, destructively inflexible, angry old men right out of those terrible earlier times.
The first half of the concert, in Beverly Hills High School's acoustically challenged K.L. Peters Auditorium, didn't help assuage the day's gloom. It consisted of the local premiere of a "Pesach" Cantata (Passover Cantata), in which Passover tunes, sung by a couple of hammy cantors, were merrily jazzed up with waltz rhythms, Verdian oration, and even a cowpoke gallop or two by Raymond Goldstein, associate conductor at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.
Such cheap entertainment may be a welcome diversion in Israel these days, but I think the gentle persuasiveness of Toch's "Cantata of the Bitter Herbs" should be more welcome still. The notable Easter works that many of us will be listening to this week are a boon to humanity. With even a modest work, Toch shows us that a Passover cantata might have similar potential. With the situation so bad in the Middle East, we can't wait forever. Toch's kind-hearted message of peace in the time of war needs to be heard.
Mark Swed is The Times' music critic.