Monday, May 7, 2018

The third Joel Engel Festival takes place at the Jerusalem music Centre

Shirelle Dashevsky (photo: Sergey Reutsky)
The third concert of the second joel Engel Festival took place at the Jerusalem Music centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim on April 30th 2018. In an ongoing project initiated by David Ben Gershon and endorsed by the work of soprano Shirelle Dashevsky, artistic director of the festival, this was another event reintroducing the significant body of music from the St. Petersburg- and Moscow schools of Jewish music of the early 20th century to the concert stage and to public awareness. In close collaboration with Ben Gershon, soprano Shirelle Dashevsky and fellow musicians have performed and recorded some of this repertoire. At the Jerusalem concert, dashevsky was once again at the helm, directing the choir of twelve professional singers. Speaking in Russian, David Ben Gershon spoke about the composers, their works, times and lives.  Pianist Haim Tukachinsky, who accompanied most beautifully throughout the evening, translated the information into Hebrew for non-Russian-speaking audience members. 

The program opened with  Lazare Saminsky’s choral  “Ya’aleh” (May it rise) from the Day of Atonement service. In Saminsky’s “By the River of Babylon” (Psalm 137), Dashevsky’s solo utterances were answered by the choir, the picturesque song abounding in 4th harmonies, drama, with the dream of Jerusalem effectively evoked in pastel sounds, also in the piano accompaniment.  With many Jews studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, it was Rimsky Korsakov who urged them to write in their natural, folk style. Following “Louder than a lark singing” Rimsky Korsakov,(text: Tolstoy; soloist: Oxana Dorfman), we heard soprano Natalia Haimova in the delicate atmospheric and virtuosic demands of  “Oriental Romance”.

In his obituary to Joseph Achron, his friend Arnold Schoenberg described Achron  as "one of the most underrated modern composers". Joseph Achron, who joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music in 1911, from then occupying himself in theory and practice with the Jewish music tradition. We heard ‘cellist Hodaya Weltz and Tukachinsky in an evocative, songful and richly-coloured reading of Achron’s “Mystic Fragment”. This was followed by two choral arrangements of Yiddish songs by Achron, the first lilting and humorous, the second ““In Zaltsikn Yam” (In the Salty Sea), a Yiddish workers’ song, to a poem of S. An-sky, more dramatic and intense.

An especially moving moment moment of the evening was Dashevsky, Weltz and Tukachinsky’s profound and expressive performance of Ephraim Shklar’s setting of Yehuda Halevi’s “Yafeh Nof”, also known as “Jerusalem”. Shklar was one of the young composers who founded the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music in 1908. On a lighter note, the choir performed  Shklar’s setting of the Yiddish “Alte Kashe” (Old Riddle), a song both philosophical and humorous, light, illusive and dancelike, the singers’ use of consonants giving its melodies much life and shape. Shklar died in the Riga Ghetto.

Of Moshe Milner’s repertoire of Yiddish songs, we heard soprano Natalia Haimova in poignant singing of  “Der Foygel” (The Bird) from his collection of songs for children titled “Zehn Kinderlider fun Y.L. Perets” for voice and piano (1922), poetic settings of children’s poems by the Polish-Jewish poet Yitschak Leyb Perets.

Joel Engel (1868-1927), a Jewish composer, critic and ethnographer known as “The Father of Jewish Music,” began arranging Jewish folk melodies in the 1890s.  His lectures and compositions were a major inspiration to younger musicians to compose their own classical works inspired by Eastern European Jewish folk music. “Agvania” (Tomato), an early Israeli agricultural song by Engel, was given a jaunty, almost jazzy interpretation, with tenor Uri Elkayam singing the solo. The concert continued with some sections of the first Hebrew-language opera “HaHalutzim” (The Pioneers) composed by Jacob Weinberg in Palestine ( Israel) in 1924. The opera is written as a dramatic, comic piece, its plot including a love story. It expresses Zionism in its purest and most romantic form. Its last performance took place in Carnegie Hall in 1949 before receiving new life in Israel at the 2nd Joel Engel Festival, but the complete opera has yet to be staged in Israel. Ben Gershon and Dashevsky have plans for that. Shirelle Dashevsky’s  wholehearted, theatrical and expressive rendering of Leah’s Aria (text: Song of Songs) reflected all the strong emotions of the opera, with Tukachinsky’s accompaniment highlighting the opera’s full, at times, oriental canvas.  The choir followed with the “Sabbath Song’ and “Hymn to Eretz Israel” choruses.

Shirelle Dashevsky’s plan was to end with another choral setting of “Ya’aleh”, this time by Joel Engel. It was a treat to hear a chamber choir of such a superb standard and some very fine soloists. David Ben Gershon and Shirelle Dashevsky are engaged in an important project, guaranteeing that these composers’ legacy will not sink into oblivion.

David Ben Gershon (photo: Sergey Reutsky)

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