Iron & Coal
by John Stoltenberg
The sheer magnitude of the concert event was enough to inspire wonder and awe. More than 200 musicians packed the Strathmore stage and a balcony above—two orchestras, three choirs, a rock band—plus animated projections on a widescreen scrim and a stadium-scale light plot flooding the hall. For two nights only, Jeremy Schonfeld’s 2011 rock concept album Iron & Coal got mega-sized. The effect was gloriously spectacular and overwhelmingly beautiful—and also dramatically not quite focused.
Composer/lyricist Schonfeld created Iron & Coal as a tribute to his German Jewish father, Gustav Schonfeld, whose story is gripping: At the age of 10 he was sent to Auschwitz and survived along with his father until liberation. Then, reunited a year later with his mother, who also survived, Gustav grew up in the United States and became a renowned medical doctor, much lauded in his lifetime. (He died in 2011 on the very day his son’s Iron & Coal was mastered.) Portions of his autobiography, titled Absence of Closure, were incorporated into the concert program. He was “the first refuge kid from war to be bar mizvahed” at his synagogue in St. Louis (“The boy who lost his childhood becomes a man today”). He tells vividly of his post-traumatic nightmares. The snippets from Gustav’s memoir make one want to read more.
Jeremy writes in a program note that he “set out…to create an album honoring the stories and history so richly engrained in the fabric of my family and the Jewish experience at large.” Thus the Shoah casts a shadow over the work, prominently in its references to “Mourner’s Kaddish,” “Yedid Nefesh,” and other Jewish prayers. But even more indelibly, the shadow of Jeremy’s father looms over the work. Gustav was a man of towering moral stature against whom Jeremy cannot but measure himself. And Jeremy’s musical vocabulary for the emotions in that complex father-son connection is, aptly enough, rock.
During the entire concert, as on the album, there is a musical conversation between the mournful and prayerful language of Jewish heritage and the pulsing questing of contemporary rock—all consolidated inside a sumptuous orchestral and choral soundscape. It is as if the central concept of the album was really to reconcile as an oratorio something mere oratory could not.
I listened to the album a lot beforehand. It’s really good (and readily available on Spotify; see link below). But nothing prepared me for how gorgeously enormous it would sound at Strathmore.
I am not a music critic; I do theater. I look for the storytelling, the characters; I try to engage with the meaning and values in the action; I listen for the language, spoken and unspoken. So it was that my ears pricked up at a particularly portentous moment about one third through the program.
Three characters are established in the story: Jeremy Schonfeld, at a piano center stage, plays Son (himself). Standing in a small set stage left, composer/singer/actor/director Rinde Eckert plays Father (Gustav). And in another small set stage right, actor/singer Lincoln Clauss plays Young Father (Gustav in his youth). Eckert’s and Clauss’s liquidly clarion voices are thrilling. Schonfeld’s has a reedier, grittier edge; you sense he’s lived the rough emotions whereof he sings.
In a composition that begins with Schoenfeld’s setting of the liturgical prayer “Yedid Nefesh” and transitions to a boppy rock song called “Good Man,” Schoenfeld sings some verses that are laden with too-precious internal rhyme (as is characteristic of Iron & Coal):
It’s too hard to swallow, the victory is kind of hollow
And it keeps on following me wherever I go
Down to the marrow and on the broken wings of a sparrow
It’s a harrowing journey learning to reap what you sow
Then powerfully, Son and Father sing a duet; then even more powerfully Young Father joins in, and the three reiterate a lyrical hook that seems to home in on why this story needed to be told:
Am I a good man?
I don’t know.
Despite the occasional lyrical banality, personal matters of great moral moment are at stake here. In his program note, Schonfeld tells us
As I labored to create Iron & Coal, I was faced with several difficult decisions: What is the story I am trying to tell here? Is it mine? Is it Dad’s? Why am I doing this, and for whom?
Those questions linger in the work itself, which wants to keep present the weight of history—the circumstances that Gustav narrowly survived—and at the same time wants to reckon with Jeremy’s own coming of age as the son of a Holocaust survivor. It’s a tall order. In the concert version Father wonders, “Did I survive for a reason?” Then later as though on faith he answers, “We survived for a reason.”
Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker and Animation Designer Tom Selzer give chilling context to this narrative with such images as coiled barbed wire, faceless human figures, a still of Gustav’s elementary school classmates, none of whom but Gustav survived. English lyric surtitles helpfully appear on the screen as well.
Early on, Son sings, “Dad, you will always be my story.” It is a line sung on Jeremy’s behalf, yet in a sense on EverySon’s, for the work is unabashedly a paean to patriliny: It’s about Jeremy and his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father and so on. Women go unmentioned except Gustav’s mother and wife, who each get maybe 15 words—a curious minimization given that what makes these sons Jewish is the fact their mothers were.
One senses that the entire opus wants to uncover the meaning of Jeremy’s life in the shadows of both history and his father—which could have been an ennobling dramaturgical throughline had Jeremy’s character arc been better crafted for the big stage. Musically, the complex passions in that character arc come through with magnificent clarity. As a composer, Schonfeld creates a conversation between himself and his heritage that is blissful to listen to. And as symphonically amplified in the vast Strathmore hall, the message in the music soars.
As a lyricist, however, Schonfeld does not do his characters’ story justice. What works in small as a concept album sounds at concert scale too random, too driven by clever but empty rhymes, too emotionally discontinuous to resonate. Like son like father, perhaps, his words struggle to be worthy of his music.
Aliyah / The Waiting
Man Questions God
Center of the Universe
Nothing Really Matters / Stop, Stop
Piece of Me
Iron & Coal / I Gotta Song
Story of Love
Produced by Strathmore and Beth Morrison Projects
Creator and Performer Jeremy Schonfeld
Director Kevin Newbury
Music Director and Arranger David Bloom
Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker
Animation Designer Tom Seltzer
Movement Natalie Lomonte
Video Engineer and Programmer Paul Vershbow
Production Stage Manager Lindsey Turteltaub
Video Assistant Michael Clark
Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras of Strathmore
Young Artists of America
Strathmore Children’s Chorus
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Iron & Coal played two performances only, May 3 and May 4, 2018, at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in Bethesda, MD.
READ an interview with Jeremy Schonfeld by my DCMTA colleague David Siegel:
LISTEN to Jeremy Schonfeld’s concept album Iron & Coal on Spotify: