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Review: Jews Flee to China in New York Philharmonic’s ‘Émigré’

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In Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt,” which the New York Philharmonic performed in October, Jews are living in captivity across the Red Sea from their ancient homeland. In “Émigré,” a new oratorio that was given its American premiere by the Philharmonic on Thursday at David Geffen Hall, they’ve gone a lot farther: to Shanghai, where thousands fled Nazi persecution.

Few milieus could be as seductively dramatic as that Chinese city in the 1930s, with its cosmopolitan glamour and wartime danger. But “Émigré” evokes none of this theatrical allure, failing to grab the ear or the heart.

With music by Aaron Zigman (known primarily for films like “The Notebook” and “Sex and the City”) and a libretto by Mark Campbell with contributions by Brock Walsh, the piece sketches the historical situation through the story of two German Jewish brothers who settle in Shanghai, which was appealing for its open immigration policies. One of the brothers falls in love with a Chinese woman; her father and the other brother object to the match; amid the violence of the Japanese occupation, tragedy ensues.

It’s a promisingly sturdy plot. But the 95-minute score is so blandly cloying, the rhymed-couplets text so stiff and the characters so cardboard, that not a moment ends up surprising or moving.

Oratorios at their best trade opera’s naturalism for stirring, meditative grandeur. “Émigré” is oratorio at its worst, with stentorian choral writing, vocal lines that soar indistinguishably from one singer to the next, prim formality — those rhyming couplets — and sluggish pacing.

A better deployment of the story would have been as one of those vigorous pieces of musical theater in which individual lives intersect with world events. Think “Les Misérables,” “Miss Saigon” or the obvious precursor to a tale of Jewish persecution and a judgmental father: “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Full of earworms, those musicals are literally unforgettable. But Zigman lacks a talent for that kind of songwriting, relying in “Émigré” on generic lyricism that rises to strained climaxes. The only catchy tune, a stoutly surging upward melody begging to be covered by the pop tenor Andrea Bocelli, is milked dry over two numbers.

And while another composer might have more creatively brought together the sounds of Jewish prayer, Asian percussion, 1930s dance and Hollywood sumptuousness, Zigman’s orchestral accompaniment tends to be lushly repetitive vamping or saccharine floods of strings mirroring the singers. Occasionally there is a loud passage to signify that something bad has happened.

At Geffen Hall, “Émigré” was given a semi-staged, costumed performance directed with resourcefulness by Mary Birnbaum. The fine cast sings on a strip at the lip of the stage as well as up behind the orchestra, in the block of seating where the chorus has also been placed.

Archival imagery projected above the stage (and designed by Joshua Higgason) conjures the place and time better than the piece itself. And with the singers wearing microphones but well balanced with the orchestra, once again the recently renovated hall has proved itself excellent for amplified sound.

Matthew White and Arnold Livingston Geis as the brothers; Shenyang, Huiling Zhu and Meigui Zhang as the Chinese family they encounter; and Diana Newman and Andrew Dwan as a pair of fellow Jews all have attractive, healthy voices and commit themselves soberly to what drama they can muster.

And with the Philharmonic’s playing, and its resident chorus’s singing, sweet and smooth, it is hard to imagine a more polished, affectionate performance than the one led on Thursday by the conductor Long Yu. An influential cultural figure in China, Yu co-commissioned the piece as music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, which premiered “Émigré” in November and recorded it.

China and especially Shanghai have been important sources of funding for the Philharmonic, which also commissioned the oratorio and has teamed with the Shanghai Symphony over the past decade. Yu has been a frequent presence on the podium in New York.

You get the sense that “Émigré” has been brought into existence less as a work of art and more as an opportunity for diplomatic exchange and as a spur to increased giving. It’s like a bauble passed between leaders at the end of a state visit: expensive and nondescript.

Émigré

A second and final performance is on Friday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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