Monday, June 22, 2009

Jewish cabaret music at Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai

For the poster of “The Jewish Cabaret” Ofer Shelly, the Atar Trio’s founder, arranger and pianist, used a photo of his grandmother who had taken refuge in Milan after escaping Romania from the Nazis. “The Jewish Cabaret”, presenting chamber music and cabaret songs from the 1920’s and the 1930’s, struck a personal note with all present.

We were assembled seven stories underground on June 8th 2009 at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai. The tiny hall is an intimate, informal venue, well suited to cabaret music. The Atar Trio, which performs mainly classical repertoire as well as concerts on specific themes, was established in 1996 by pianist and arranger Ofer Shelley; other members are violinist Tanya Beltser and ‘cellist Marina Kats. They were joined by singers Valeria Ventura and Odelia Dahan.

The program opened with American Jewish composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield’s (b.1947) instrumental piece “Café Music”. Infused with jazzy rhythms, chromatics and dance rhythms of the early 20th century, it set the scene for an evening of Jewish culture, of joy and nostalgia.

This was followed by three Kurt Weill (1900-1950) songs, performed by Italian-born Valeria Ventura; Ventura had stood in at the last minute for Ye’ela Avital, who was ill. The “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” (1943,words Berthold Brecht) depicts the musings of the wife whose husband is away. What gifts would he send her from Amsterdam, Prague, Brussels and Paris? What he finally sends her from Russia is a widow’s veil. In the Brecht song “Nanna’s Song” a woman talks of the bitter lessons of love. “I Don’t Love You” (lyrics, Maurice Magre) in French, is less ironic but very sentimental, more into the style of French cabaret tradition of the time. Ventura uses her palette of different vocal colors to outline tender love, heartbreak and anger.

Ventura’s pleasing performance of Menachem Wiesenberg’s beautiful arrangement of “Raisins and Almonds” by the prominent Yiddish poet and playwright, Itzik Manger, had several people in the audience humming along.

The Swiss-born composer Ernst Bloch (1880-1959) composed “From Jewish Life” for ‘cello and piano in 1924, “Prayer” being the first of the three pieces. Marina Kats gave a brilliant, introspective performance of this work, giving expression to Bloch’s personal utterance, bringing out the Jewish, declamatory character of his melodic lines. Lithuanian-born violinist and composer Joseph Achron (1886-1943) became preoccupied with developing a “Jewish” harmonic and contrapuntal idiom. His first Jewish-flavored work “Hebrew Melody” (1911) was an instant success, at the hands of violinist Jascha Heifitz. It is based on a melody the composer had heard in a Warsaw synagogue in his youth. Tanya Beltser and Shelley performed this and Achron’s “Hebrew Dance” (1936), both highly melodious, complex and demanding pieces, both sketching a picture of European Jewish life with its celebrations and its ever-present, underlying sadness.

Jerusalemite Odelia Dahan is known for her performance of Ladino songs. Her alto register is pleasing and highly colored, more so than her higher register. A convincing performer, she presented this repertoire from the Balkan countries with charm and humour, showing the twist in a suitor’s story, bringing out the dance-like rhythms of “Avram Avinu” (Our Forefather Abraham) and lilting the well-loved Ladino song “Morenica” (Dark Girl).
‘Dark girl
So very beautiful,
In your eyes a burning fire.
My heart is all yours.’
These songs were creatively arranged by Shelley, allowing for spontaneity, instrumental solos and addressing the oriental aspect of Sephardic music.

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