“David’s Quilt,” a 90-minute oratorio about the biblical King David, begins at the end of his story.
As David lies dying, a woman shrouds him in a quilt to keep him warm as he recollects his accomplishments and experiences.
The events that the biblical King David relates to her inspired the 19 musical compositions in “David’s Quilt,” a collaboration between the Herb Alpert School of Music and the Max Helfman Institute for New Jewish Music, which will open Sunday night at the Stephen S. Wise Temple. David Lefkowitz, a professor at the Herb Alpert School of Music and one of the composers, said the title of the event refers both to the quilt that covers David as well as the combined efforts of 15 composers who narrate his story through music and song.
“We have this patchwork of composers … from really very different circumstances, and it was not necessarily clear how well they would work together,” he said.
Each composition differs in terms of musical style and instrumental makeup – some are reminiscent of 1950s film noir soundtracks while others feature acoustic guitar and vocals. The variation between the pieces reflects David’s complex, flawed and sometimes contradictory characteristics, Lefkowitz said.
Maxim Kuzin, a conductor and UCLA doctoral candidate, said the performance also modernizes the 3,000-year-old story of King David by introducing contemporary music to the story. Some of the numbers incorporate a blues style and one composition makes use of an a capella choir singing to a rhythm reminiscent of jazz or hip-hop.
“I was actually surprised by the diversity of the style that these compositions (have),” he said. “I’m very excited because I have the chance to conduct, in one evening, in one production, music that has sources coming from film music (and) sources like American musicals.”
Lefkowitz composed the last two pieces in the oratorio. The penultimate piece depicts the death of David’s son, Absalom, who attempted to rebel against his father earlier in his life. In the Second Book of Samuel, David laments his son’s death by exclaiming “Oh Absalom, my son, my son!”
In his interpretation of the scene, Lefkowitz saw David as not only mourning the death of his son, but also inwardly questioning what he did to deserve it. As David wrestles with his conflicting emotions, a soloist sings the libretto, “Did I love too much, or not enough? Should I have been gentle or rough? But children are a gift from above; How can I choose how to love?”
The libretto follows a straightforward rhyme scheme, Lefkowitz said. Whole tone chords and scales, in which no note in particular grounds the scale, help the number mirror the feelings of ambiguity David experiences at the loss of his son.
Near the end of the number, however, the mood shifts as David redirects his attention to his other son Solomon. The music becomes more heroic, using ascending notes to evoke the majesty of Solomon’s kingship and hopes for the new capital, Jerusalem.
Lefkowitz said almost none of the compositions follow liturgical style. And although the performance‘s content has Jewish origins, not all of the performers and composers are Jewish, Lefkowitz said.
“It shouldn’t be of interest solely to Jewish members of the LA community,” he said. “(It should) be of interest to really anybody who likes music, who likes contemporary music, who’s interested in biblical stories and the relevance that the Bible still has for many, many people in the world.”
Nicky Sohn, a UCLA doctoral candidate and one of the composers, said she was intimidated by the project at first because she did not grow up with the biblical story. She added she was more interested in the storytelling aspect of the project than the religious one.
“Of course it’s a religious story … but it is such an interesting and compelling story without even the religious background to it,” she said.
Sohn, whose background is in classical music, composed her piece as a classical operetta. She composed a number involving a scene where Jonathan begs his father, Saul, not to kill David.
A librettist, or musical writer, gave her a four-page dialogue between the father and son, but Sohn said she realized begging for someone’s life would be intimate and simple, so she condensed the four pages of text into eleven lines, sung as a vocal solo without a background chorus.
Lefkowitz said Sohn and the other composers met multiple times to give each other feedback on each others’ pieces, but ultimately, each composer interpreted the story on their own.
“Despite this being a quilt, despite this coming from a collection of composers – some of whom knew each other, some of whom did not – the overall effect … is really going to be powerful,” Lefkowitz said.