Monday, December 21, 2009

Russian Jewish music of the early 20th century performed in Jerusalem

“From Forgotten Jewish Music of the 20th Century” was the title given to a recital presented by soprano Shirelle Dashevsky and pianist Zinaida Gladun at the Jerusalem Harmony (Cultures Centre) Hall, December 17th 2009. The program focused on four Jewish composers, also including Jewish folk songs as well as some well-loved Israeli songs.

Coloratura soprano Shirelle Dashevsky, born in the Ukraine, made her home in Jerusalem in 2000. A member of the Musica Aeterna Choir and Opera Aeterna, she divides her time between performing opera, Baroque- and chamber music, collaborating with Israeli composers and artists and her teaching career. Pianist Zinaida Gladun, also from the Ukraine, has been in Israel since 1990. In addition to her work accompanying singers, choirs, instrumentalists and dancers, Gladun sings jazz and pop, conducts choirs and writes vocal arrangements.

Dashevsky, introducing the program, mentioned the Society for Jewish Folk Music, licensed by Czarist authorities in 1908. They had used the term “folk” in their refusal in recognizing “serious” Jewish music. Composers involved in the organization, writing quality music in the late Romantic idiom, were mostly linked to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the four represented at this concert having been pupils of Rimsky Korsakov.

Setting the scene, the artists opened the evening with a medley of Yiddish folk songs. The songs spoke of poverty, of sadness and joy, Dashevsky convincingly depicting the reality of Jewish life at the time.

Alexander Krejn (1883-1951, the son of a well-known klezmer violinist and folk poet), was one of the leading modernist composers of the Soviet Union, playing a major role in the emerging school of Jewish national music. In two pieces from his “Ornamente”, Songs Without Words for Voice and Piano opus 42, he incorporates the modes, pathos and motifs of sacred- and secular Jewish music; Dashevsky uses a musical language of shapes, delicate dynamic shading and mood changes to sing vocalizations void of words. Krejn’s songs express yearning. In “Lullaby”, a mother tells her child that his father works hard, that they have no money and that she hopes the child will remember her later in life for the love with which she had raised him.

Lazare Saminsky (1882-1959), a co-founder of the St Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music and researcher of Jewish music of the Caucasus (1913), was one of the group of Russian intellectuals who, during the first decade of the 20th century, endeavored to establish a new form of Jewish art music based on ethnic and religious material. His Hebrew Lullaby was tender and sad, whereas “Esterke’s Song” (1940), to lyrics by Samuel Jacob Imber, was dramatic and moving, offering both artists the stage, both Dashevsky and Gladun using well-paced timing to bring life to the text.

Moshe Milner (1886-1953), affiliated with the Society for Jewish Folk Music, conducted the premiere of his “Die himlen brenen” (The Heavens are Burning) in 1923, this being the first Yiddish opera in Russia. He was, altogether, involved in much theatre music. The duo performed his song “Unter di grininke beymelekh (Under the Green Trees) to words by Ch.N.Bialik.
‘Under the green trees by the way,
Little Moshes and Shlomos play,
Gabardines, fringes, earlocks, new-
Hatched from the egg, each baby Jew.
Light as down their bodies – puff,
The gentlest breeze will carry them off,
And the little birds flying by,
Snatch them up and lift them high.
But one thing they have – eyes that are bright
Flashing, flaming points of light,
That glow and sparkle and burn and gleam,
And wonderful and prophetic seem.
They stand looking upward, open-eyed,
Rapt, ecstatic, beatified.
Ah, I would give my Paradise
For such clear and holy eyes..’
Dashevsky and Galdon presented a lyrical reading of the song, its text laden with layers of meaning, the piano richly accompanying with flowing arpeggiated chords.

We heard songs of the prolific Lithuanian-born violinist and composer Joseph Achron (1886-1943), another of the founders of the Society of Jewish Folk Music. Better known here for his instrumental works, Achron composed more than 20 songs, of which the artists performed two. Both to Hebrew texts, the first - “Each day I go to Your House” (words: Yaacov Fichman) - a love song, was dedicated to his wife Marie, a singer. A work of underlying seriousness and sophistication, Achron’s piano parts are richly orchestral, chromatic and boast highly colored chords. The second song – “A Dove Flew Past Me” - with its bittersweet melody, gives a beautiful, imaginative and visual picture of spring, complete with birdcalls (heard on the piano.) Gladun’s reading of it was delightful and involving, her articulate playing and use of the sustaining pedal adding to the scintillating effect of the song.

Another medley of attractive arrangements of Yiddish folk songs focused on discussion between folk and their rabbi. Dashevsky communicates the personal human message, the humor and joy of these songs.

The concert closed with five familiar Israeli songs, the artists choosing to end on a pensive and nostalgic note with “Sad Song” composed to words of the poet Rachel (Bluwstein) (1890-1931).

This thought-provoking concert brought to light the importance of works by Russian-Jewish composers of the beginning of the 20th century. Shirelle Dashevsky’s communicative portrayals of each character and idea were alive with meaning, dynamic shape and emotion. Her vocal ability is superb, as is the sheer beauty of her voice. Taking on board the complexities and interest of the piano roles of the songs presented, Zinaida Gladun weaves fine pianistic ability, musicality, detail and delicacy into the performance, addressing each musical gesture in depth.

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