Monday, December 7, 2015

Music of the school of National Jewish Art Music performed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On November 24th 2015, “Hymn to a Poet”, the first of three concerts of works by composers of the Jewish Art Music Movement, took place in the National Library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was organized by the “Joel Engel Nigunim La’ad (Melody Forever) Organization”, established in 2012 by Shirelle Dashevsky, with the aim of promoting Jewish art music and encouraging the composition of Jewish works. Holding concerts in various parts of Israel, the organization has three ensembles: a vocal ensemble, a chamber ensemble and an ensemble specializing in the performance of Jewish instrumental-vocal music in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Most of the artists in these ensembles are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. Announcing and explaining the evening’s program was Dr. Gila Flam, director of the Music Department (Hebrew University) and the National Sound Archives of the National Library of Israel; she has helped to make this project a reality, making library funds available to include an exhibition of historic scores. The concept is that of Dr. David Ben-Gershon, who has done much research on the composers, on defining the selection of music, obtaining scores, and more. Soprano Shirelle Dashevsky is the program director, selecting and inviting artists, constructing programs and transforming the chosen scores into actual music. The program we heard offered a representative selection of works by several of the key figures of the Jewish Art Music Movement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a new school of modern Jewish composers took to the European stage. Coming from the great Russian conservatories of St. Petersburg and Moscow, these young composers drew their inspiration from both the current styles of Russian music and from secular Jewish Nationalism. Encouraged by such key musical figures as Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Scriabin, Joel Engel, Alexander Krein, Joseph Achron, Mikhail Gnessin, Leo Zeitlin and Lazare Saminsky and other Jewish composers took it upon themselves to create a new modern style of Jewish art music, shaping it for concert rendition. In doing so, they researched and collected early Jewish liturgical chant, secular folk songs and instrumental melodies, the result being a new fusion of Jewish traditional music and European classical styles. There were several elements influencing the movement - the awakening of a national awareness, the revival of Hebrew, an interest in secular Hebrew- and Yiddish literature, Zionism and what was referred to by them as the ‘Haskala’ – the Jewish ‘Enlightenment’.

As a composer, Alexander Krein (1883-1951) was a major figure in the emerging school of Jewish national music, being an active member of the Moscow branch of the Society of Jewish Folk Music and the Society for Jewish music. He composed instrumental music and much music for theatre. His father was a folk violinist; Alexander spent much of his childhood playing klezmer music in his father’s band. His own individual style combines the harmonic language of Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, together with the lyrical melodies and modes of Jewish music. Opening the concert a vivid performance of Krein’s “Ornament” opus 42 no.1 (Uri Brener-piano, Dina Guyfleg-violin) set the scene with music of a distinctly Jewish yet eclectic nature – eastern European synagogue music, with its spirit of improvisation. In one of the composer’s autumnal “Three Songs from the Ghetto” (1918) Krein’s delicate, reflective vocal line paired well with an evocative piano part, making for interesting listening.

Born in Crimea, Russia, composer, critic and scholar Joel Engel has been referred to as the “father of modern Jewish music”. He published Russian-style song romances and arrangements of Jewish folk songs as well as a collection of Yiddish folk songs. In his mission of revealing the artistic potential of Jewish music to both Russian- and Russian-Jewish composers, he was seen as the founder of the modern school of Jewish national art music, taking a leading role in the Society for Jewish Folk Music, also collecting and recording music from and undertaking the transcription and field recording of Jewish music in the shtetls (villages of Eastern Europe). Giving the program its name, Engel’s “Hymn to a Poet” (lyrics: S. Schneur) in celebration of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s 50th birthday, was performed in Hebrew by soprano Shirelle Dashevsky and tenor Konstantin Kotelnikov (piano: Uri Brener); “Two Letters”, performed by the three and sung in Yiddish, created the emotion and drama of Jewish life of the time. Lazare Saminsky (1882-1969), co-founder of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, was especially involved in the importance of early synagogue music. His “Song of Songs” opus 13 no.1, to a poem of Pushkin, was sung in Russian by Kotelnikov. Also instrumental in the founding of the Society for Jewish Folk Music and director of the Jewish Art Theater, Solomon Rosowsky (1878-1962) went to Palestine in 1925, where he, among other activities, researched Lithuanian biblical cantillation. In “A-Wieg Lied” (Lullaby) opus 4 no.2, one of his Yiddish art songs, the picture emerging from Dashevsky’s contrasting dynamics and well-controlled piano and Brener’s magical and evocative playing was that the lullaby’s message was not all soothing gestures. Violinist Dina Goyfeld-Zemtsova and Uri Brener’s vibrant playing of Michael Gnessin’s (1883-1957) “Song of the Wandering Knight” for ‘cello or violin and piano (1921) highlighted the piece’s interest, temperament and its playfulness, also drawing attention to Gnessin’s fine compositional technique.

A major section of the concert focused on the music of Joseph Achron (1888-1943). Representing Achron the composer and consummate violinist, we heard Goyfeld-Zemtsova and Brener in a sophisticated performance of “Scher” opus 42 (1917), with the violin repeating its traditional klezmer-style dance melody over increasingly more complex and daring, experimental piano textures. The traditionally eastern European Jewish melody of Achron’s Canzonetta opus 52 no.2 (1923), taking its lyrics from a poem by Hebrew poet Avraham Ben Yitzhak, its form strophic but with variety, was performed by Dashevsky, Goyfeld and Brener. Dashevsky and Brener’s presentation of “A dove passed by my face” opus 53 no.2 (1923) delighted in its descriptiveness, with its fluttering of wings, coloristic use of the sustaining pedal and the singer’s easeful communication with the audience.

One of the highlights of the program was all four artists’ moving reading Hirsh Kopit’s “Wos wet sajn mit Reb Isroel dem frumen”, its bittersweet Jewish melodiousness set off by a fragile and reticent - almost dancelike - refrain. The program concluded with all four musicians in a concert version of three movements from Jacob Weinberg’s 1924 opera “Chalutzim” (Pioneers), the lyrics of which were also written by the composer. The first Zionist opera, it focuses on the lives of pioneers on a kibbutz in Mandate Palestine. Having escaped the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the kibbutzniks are now enthusiastic about dedicating their lives to the rebuilding of Israel. The work, which includes a love story, recreates the atmosphere of the times, with dances and songs reflecting the style developing in Israeli music. (Jacob Weinberg lived in Palestine from 1921 to 1925, before leaving for the USA.) In music that might today been viewed as dated, sentimental and naïve, it is nevertheless rich in content and drama. The artists gave it their all, conveying the climate and excitement of this chapter of Israeli history that is sinking into oblivion.

Shirelle Dashevsky’s work on this project is of much value. Her selection of fine artists, her own informed performance and their collaborative high quality of musicianship are bringing back to life a substantial and significant body of Jewish music and recounting a chapter of the history of Jewish music that must be told.

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