BWW Review: Jeremy Schonfeld's IRON & COAL Premieres at Strathmore

BWW Review:  Jeremy Schonfeld's IRON & COAL Premieres at Strathmore
Jeremy Schonfeld at the piano as Music Director David Bloom conducts members of Contemporaneous and the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra. Photo by Jim Saah.

In 2011, composer, lyricist, and performer Jeremy Schonfeld released Iron & Coal - a concept album inspired by his father Gustav's memoir, Absence of Closure. Gustav spent a year in the Auschwitz concentration camp at the age of ten. He moved to America as a refugee, eventually becoming a doctor, finding love, and raising a family. Through songs, Jeremy strives to find meaning in a life and relationship built in the shadow of the Holocaust. Fast forward to 2018, following a workshop production in 2016, the album serves as a basis for a two-night world premiere theatrical concert at the glorious Music Center at Strathmore just outside of Washington, DC.

Creator Jeremy Schonfeld contributed his raw, gritty, and emotive voice to the proceedings as the Son. Lincoln Clauss and Rinde Eckert portrayed his father at a young and older age, respectively. Mini book scenes, performed by Clauss and Eckert, provided insight into Gustav's life in the camp, as well as after he moved to America. Schonfeld's songs are designed to explore the emotions experienced in times of joy and immense pain. Throughout the course of their lives, relationships emerge, change, and are fractured - they just need to find meaning in it all.

Along with Jeremy Schonfeld on piano, Contemporaneous (a 21-member professional ensemble of musicians) and the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra brought his masterful music to life, playing everything from traditional Jewish prayers and contemplative ballads to numbers with a considerably more pronounced pop-rock edge. A large choir - comprised of The Alexandria Harmonizers, the Strathmore-based Young Artists of America, and the Strathmore Children's Chorus - added their voices to the mix from behind a projection screen (more on that later).

BWW Review:  Jeremy Schonfeld's IRON & COAL Premieres at Strathmore
Musicians from Contemporaneous and Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras, with singers from Young Artists of America, the Strathmore Children's Chorus, and The Alexandria Harmonizers. Photo by Jim Saah.

The combination of all of these voices and musicians under Music Director and Arranger David Bloom, and the powerful story set the concert on a good footing, initially. I was immediately drawn in when the "Mourner's Kaddish" began. Unfortunately, the evening ended up being a disappointment.

The music stood out as the most successful element. Schonfeld blends multiple styles and while I did wish for more cohesion across the numbers at time, there's no denying his music's beauty and power. It was expertly delivered by all the musicians, building at all of the right moments for a sweeping effect.

Unfortunately, the rhythm section often drowned out the choir and the strings. Strathmore has some of the best acoustics in the area, so the sound design choices (Tyler Kieffer) resulted in an extremely frustrating listening experience. Schonfeld's lyrics were displayed on the projection screen so I could read them, though some were washed out by Japhy Weidman's theatrical lighting. However, it would have been nice to hear all of them too, in addition to the probably beautiful harmonies the choir was producing.

The sound balance issues, thankfully, only impacted the choir. I could hear the amplified lead vocalists just fine. Schonfeld was the best singer/performer of the three by far. On the night I attended, Clauss struggled with the higher notes, but delivered them with emotion. Eckert, while singing the right notes, failed to make much of an impression on me. His voice was indistinguishable from many others I've heard. His performance was wooden and I didn't feel like he really connected to the material.

Speaking of lyrics, while undoubtedly personal, I did not feel they moved the story along very well. They were often quite generic, covering such familiar topics as love, loss, and family. While the book scenes (however awkwardly performed) helped tell the story, the lyrics did not. This was most surprising to me because from Jeremy Schonfeld's other work, I know he is a great storyteller.

S. Katy Tucker's projection design and Tom Seltzer's animation design provided some context even if the animation - in particular - was distracting at best.

Perhaps the material is best served as a concept album, in which the listener can interpret the lyric meaning on their own. As a theatrical event directed by Kevin Newbury, there's a lot of room for improvement.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

IRON & COAL was performed at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, MD on May 3 and 4, 2018. This review covers the performance on May 4.

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