Saturday, September 1, 2012

Old and new meet in a concert of "Selichot" prayers

On August 30th 2012, the Jerusalem Theatre’s Little Theatre was the venue for “Salachti” (Hebrew: I Have Pardoned), a multi-media event organized by “Bama Tova” (A Good Stage, or Platform) and produced and directed by Benyamin Yakovian (assistant director - Asif Kehila). “Bama Tova”, a non-profit organization established by a group of young Jerusalemites, has set its goal to advance the arts in Jerusalem on a broad cultural- and intercultural spectrum, and to helping young Jerusalem artists creating in the genres of literature, poetry, theatre, cinema, the plastic arts, music and photography. Via understanding neighboring cultures and the cultural heritage of local Israelis, the organization aspires to bring artistic expression, on its many levels, to the general community.

“I Have Pardoned” refers to “Selichot”, the ancient prayers of repentance recited by Jews during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). These prayers are customarily recited at early morning services that take place prior to dawn both daily and on the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah. The Day of Atonement, following soon after Rosh Hashanah, brings this time of reflection to its highest point. The event at the Jerusalem Theatre was devoted to the oriental Jewish tradition, in which Selichot prayers are recited for 40 days, symbolic of the time Moses spent on Mt. Sinai. The approach to repentance in the Jewish religion can be summed up in the following text:
‘The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, rich in steadfast kindness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment…’ (Exodus 34:6-7).

The performance consisted of several of the Selichot melodies. most sung by Benyamin Yakovian and accompanied by four instrumentalists – Manouchehr Belazadeh-tar, Ivan Chershanash-percussion, Daniel Zakai-violin and Eitan Rabbani-oud; these were punctuated by small whimsical sketches presented by actors Alon Wanger and David Ariel. The sketches related to people of different Jewish ethnic groups and their approach to Selichot and atonement. Born in Iran, Yakovian is a “paitan”, a cantor in the oriental tradition. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has studied at the Akademia Teatralna im. Aleksandra Zelwerowicza (Poland). He is well steeped in oriental Jewish musical tradition, its maqams (scales) and distinctive style of singing. His performance is compelling, his leading confident in the several antiphonal songs on the program, his voice bright, penetrating and consistent in all registers. His skilful use of the occasional melismatic passage was appreciated by the audience. The prayer melodies were strophic, most focusing on a small melodic nucleus, their characteristic repetition and mesmerizing rhythms inviting the listener to join. Accompaniments were tasteful and delicate, the instrumentalists’ support never venturing out of their monophonic style into western harmony, their voices added to refrains and repeated phrases. Some of the evening’s most poignant and intimate moments were heard in the solo improvised instrumental introductions to songs, these offering the audience an opportunity to hear each player in his own personal form of expression. An interesting and very different item was a melody sung in Persian with much feeling and intensity by Manouchehr Belazadeh; the artist accompanied himself on the tar (a long-necked, wasted lute found throughout the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia, widely used in Persian music) and was joined by Chershanash on drum. I would have liked to have understood the text.

In a subtle mix of past and present, Yakovian and his players kept well clear of “showy performance”; in an atmosphere of authenticity and humility, they created the sense of togetherness and personal introspection that constitute the two basic elements of traditional Selichot prayer.

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