Jewish Music
of Interwar
Eastern Europe
[Review] by Leonard Lehrman

New Music Connoisseur, Spring 2016, v. 21 #1, pp. 14-15

Three fascinating and moving concerts of Jewish music written in Eastern Europe between the wars were heard in NY recently, two at the Center for Jewish History, one in a dramatic run at BAM.

On April 27, 2016, YIVO and the American Society for Jewish Music presented "A Musical Journey from Russia" at the CJH, featuring works by composers who had been members of the Society for Jewish Folk Music founded at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1908, including: Joseph Achron's "Hebrew Melody" for Violin & Piano; Mikhail Gnesin's "Variations on a Jewish Folk Theme" for String Quartet; Alexandre Krein's "Esquisses Hebraiques #1" for Clarinet Quintet; Solomon Rosowsky's "Fantastische Tanz" for Piano Trio, Leo Zeitlin's "Eli Zion" for Cello & Piano; and songs by Joel Engel, Mikhail (Moshe) Milner, Lazare Saminsky and Lazar Weiner.

Of these, only Lazar Weiner, often hailed as the Father of Yiddish Art Song, lived long enough to be part of our own era. I vividly remember meeting and interviewing him about his opera, The Golem, the last year of his life (he died at the age of 84, in 1982), and his song "Yiddish" (not included in this concert) opened many concerts of the Jüdische Musiktheaterverein Berlin in the 1980s, as well as our concerts of Russian and Jewish music this past June in New York and Vitebsk. Donna Breitzer was the capable soprano in the songs. Outstanding among the instrumentalists was cellist Valeriya Sholokhova, daughter of YIVO Head Librarian Ludmila Sholokhova, who happens to be married to violinist/conductor Yuval Waldman, on sabbatical this year from ASJM, but present at the concert, which was largely organized by ASJM President Michael Leavitt. Nearly all the music was almost totally unknown, undeservedly, as these performances successfully demonstrated. Video of portions of the pieces and lectures on the music collections may be viewed at the CJH website.

Four weeks later, on May 25, 2016, the ASJM again presented music at the CJH in a panoply of styles, again most of it undeservedly little known, but this time by one composer: Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech Jew and a Communist, who tried unsuccessfully to get a visa to Russia during the Hitler-Stalin pact. My first encounter with Schulhoff's music came three decades ago when a young German saxophonist in Berlin asked me to accompany him in the composer's best-known, and probably best, piece, the "Hot Sonata," a dazzlingly complex, contrapuntal work inspired by jazz that has not been equalled in its writing for both piano and sax at least until more recent works by the likes of Paul Creston and Karel Husa. It formed the grand finale of ASJM's Schulhoff tribute, performed by Marty Ehrlich and pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe, who also soloed expertly in six Milhaudesque dances and the challenging Sonata #1. In between came a well-rehearsed rendition of the String Quartet #1 performed by Stern-Wolfe's Downtown Chamber Players (violinists Marshall Coid & Bradley Bosenbeck, violist Veronica Salas and cellist Mary Wooten).

In the realm of oddities, came the first ever 3-movement solo sonata for unaccompanied contrabassoon (beginning with a rather amazing fugue) performed by Thomas Sefcovic, and a portion of the "Sonata Erotica" for "Mutterstrompete," which has been mistranslated sometimes as "muted trompet," but seems to be more of a pun, as it's actually for solo female voice, experiencing (faking?) or at least emoting sounds in German clearly redolent of orgasm. Michael Beckerman's enlightening lecture on the composer, which featured numerous recorded excerpts, including this piece, was cut short when an elderly woman started yelling that she wanted to hear the music in the concert, not a lecture. (Michael Leavitt was heard to say later that this woman would be asked not to attend any more ASJM concerts.) "I guess they won't let me play this!" exclaimed Beckerman, which was a shame indeed, though the piece can be heard online, rendered by a number of performers, including the Dutch singer Loes Loca who premiered it in 1993. Many have speculated whether it influenced Luciano Berio's Visage or Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues. In any case, Schulhoff's fate was as miserable as Anne Frank's. Though not technically murdered by the Nazi machine, he died of typhus or tuberculosis at an interment camp in 1942 at the age of 45. Widely performed at European festivals during his lifetime, his expertly crafted music has gathered posthumous appreciation only gradually.

In between these two CJH events, the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, specializing in "Theatrical Concerts," presented Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone, a two-act play written by Eve Wolf, from April 27 to May 1, 2016 at BAM Fisher. Meticulously researched and glossed by generous program notes, the work centered on the relationship between the Russian poet and the Russian-English (Jewish) critic/philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who spent a Platonic night with her in St. Petersburg, with emotional and life-changing results for both of them. The musical interludes for the evening formed a rich tapestry on its own, encompassing emotionally poignant solos, chamber works, and transcriptions of pieces by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. Highlights included 3 excerpts from the ballet Romeo & Juliet, and the Shostakovich Piano Trio #2, which employs bitingly mordant klezmer themes and next to his autobiographical String Quartet #8 is probably his most expressive chamber piece. Cellist Andrew Janas, Ms. Wolf, and her daughter, violinist Victoria Wolf Lewis, played it passionately. Max Barros performed a number of the solo piano pieces with aplomb. My only criticism was that the playing was so beautiful, the acting by the six performers playing Akhmatova, Berlin, and 7 other characters, could only suffer by comparison. Pronunciation of some of the names could particularly have used better coaching. But the work as a whole is very powerful, and deserves to be translated into Russian and heard by audiences appreciative of Akhmatova's poetic art ­ as was obviously the case with many Russian-speaking attendees.

LEONARD LEHRMAN is the composer of 225 works to date, including 8 Russian songs, recorded July [1-2] by Helene Williams, Alexander Mikhailėv, and the State Symphony Orchestra of St. Petersburg under Vladimir Lande. His 11th opera, The Triangle Fire,, with libretto by Ellen Frankel, will be performed by soloists from Bronx Opera and The Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus in previews in NJ Sep. 4 & 11 and in NY Mar. 5, 12 , & 25, 2017.


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