BR> Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Breathing New Life Into
Jewish Musical Traditions
AUFBAU 61:24 Nov. 24, 1995 p12
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Nov. 17, 1995
1206 words

Talent and conviction can breathe new life into materials as old as time immemorial. Several concerts over the past few weeks, and a new recording, well illustrate this maxim.

[NYFOS' Songs of the Diaspora]

The New York Festival of Song presented "Songs of the Diaspora" October 28 at the 92 Street Y to a sold-out house roaring for more from the duo-pianist artistic directors Michael Barrett and Steven Blier accompanying a quartet of vocal soloists: Robert Abelson, Peter Kazarus, Lorraine Hunt, and especially Tovah Feldshuh.

It's been over twenty years since Ms. Feldshuh first lit up the New York stage as the title role in the straight play adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yentl. "I was flat-chested then!" she smiled in a post-concert interview, having just wowed the audience with a meaty, raunchy Sophie Tucker encore about food. Don't miss her one-woman show Tovah: Cross-Ovah! at New York's Hudson Guild Theatre November 27-28.

Ms. Hunt's lovely mezzo voice was also displayed to advantage - one looks forward to her first solo recital later this season - while character tenor Peter Kazarus' hilarious expression and exclamation in the line "Where is your clothes!" in Irving Berlin's "Sadie Salome Go Home" were worth the price of admission.

The program ranged from Mahler and Rubinstein to Gershwin and Harold Rome by way of Shostakovich, Milhaud & Ravel, Warshawsky & Milner, Rodrigo (at 95, the only still-living composer on the program) & Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Lazar Weiner and of course (Barrett & Blier's late mentor) Leonard Bernstein, all woven together with perceptive commentary and program notes. Two minor corrections of the latter: Weiner died not in 1992 but a decade earlier - I knew him, and dedicated my own Yiddish song to his memory - and Felix Mendelssohn was not a convert; his father was.

Timeless Jewish Songs

"Timeless Jewish Songs" (Shirim La'ad) is another multilingual effort, combining Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, but eschewing piano for harp accompaniment, glisteningly played by Barbara Dechario in arrangements by her husband Joseph Dechario. The singer in this Sampler CD or tape, produced in Rochester NY, is Cantor Martha Rock Birnbaum. As partial compensation for a relatively monochromatic vocal palate, the recording adds flute, viola, cello, percussion and even another soprano - all local Geneseo/Rochester talent to each of five songs, plus overdubbing of Cantor Birnbaum's voice in several numbers.

The effect is often pleasing, even angelic, and occasionally amusing, as in the witty Mendelssohnian quotations in the middle of "Der Rebbe Elimeylekh." One misses a certain roughness in the just-a-little-too sweet "Finjan" and the a cappella "Zog nit keynmol." The arrangement of "Eliahu Hanavi," though, should be an inspiration to anyone who might have underestimated the potential for richness in that old Pesach standard.

[Mira Zakai at HUC-JIR]

Yet another multi-lingual Jewish program, in French (Ravel & Milhaud again), Ladino, Hebrew, and German, was presented at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion by the AntiDefamation League and the Israeli Consulate General's Department of Cultural Affairs on Sunday afternoon, November 5.

The c.200-member audience shivered through the concert - partly because of the subject matter, but mostly because New York University had neglected to heat the building over the weekend! Ably accompanied by pianist Thomas Muraco, the Israeli singer Mira Zakai was listed as a contralto, but she is really more of a mezzo, her upper range being much the clearest and most expressive part of her voice. The concert, focussed on the theme of Kristallnacht, was rededicated as well - through various preliminary speeches and an "Izkor" for violin and piano by Odon Partos - to the memory of an honorary alumnus of the college, Itzak Rabin, whose shocking murder the night before was naturally uppermost in everyone's minds.

The highlight of the concert was its second half: the U.S. premiere of a 1985 cycle of eleven songs based on texts by Holocaust survivors and non-survivors, composed by the German Jewish emigr Norbert Glanzberg (born 1910), a former assistant to Alban Berg and four-hand piano partner of Bela Bartok who fled Aachen for Paris in 1933 and was eventually discovered and mentored by the film composer (and member of "Les Six") Georges Auric. Glanzberg wrote chansons for Edith Piaf and Yves Montand, but this cycle explores a gamut of styles from Mahler to Wolf to Richard Strauss to Ravel and back to Brahms, Volkslieder and operetta. A little long in the middle perhaps, it nonetheless contains numerous moments of inspiration, especially the first four and last three songs. One can hardly wait for the CD, scheduled to appear on the Israeli Diaspora label in January, and the score - still being edited for eventual publication.

NY Phil Composer Week:
Spotlighting Lukas Foss

Lukas Foss (born 1922 in Berlin) is another Jewish composer of German origin who has been inspired by traditions and the need to breathe new life into them. (His birthname, "Lukas Fuchs," was changed by his father when the family came to America in 1937 because "it sounded like a dirty word in English.")

One of Foss's most enduring works, his 1946 Song of Songs, a cycle of four settings in English for mezzo and piano or orchestra redolent of middle-period Stravinsky (and Bernstein), was performed complete by Florence Quivar and the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur as part of their "Composer Week: Spotlighting Lukas Foss" November 9, 10 & 11. "Come my Beloved," the most attractive of the songs, will be heard again at Brooklyn's Borough Hall sung by Helene Williams next April 24.

With soloist Jeanne Baxtresser, the Philharmonic also performed Foss's four-movement Renaissance Concerto for Flute and Orchestra of 1986, a pleasant experiment in stylistic and physical space, employing two trumpets at the corners of the stage in movement #1 and asking for "one each of violin, viola, and cello in a distant position for the third movement" - a request noted but not honored by the Philharmonic.

Preceding each of the Foss works were Renaissance brass pieces in the first half, and Purcell theater songs accompanied by string quartet and harpsichord in the second, all performed with enthusiasm. The generous program notes were marred only by clumsy page turns and - despite a multitude of photographs of performers and even interviewers (staff composer Tania Leon) - the lack of even one picture of the "spotlighted" composer-conductor-pianist-teacher Foss!

[Long Island Philharmonic
Honors Christopher Keene

Just a brief note on another series of concerts the same weekend by another Philharmonic - the Long Island, in memory of its late founding Music Director, Christopher Keene - at East Islip, Stony Brook and Tilles Center November 10, 11 and 12: I was honored to see my name credited as translator of the last few lines of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, which I had predicted (in this paper's review of Keene's last performance) could be Keene's premature epitaph. Evidently his widow agreed, and the words appeared as a caption to a beautiful portrait photo of him in the program.

David Alan Miller's conducting, and the orchestra's playing, of the second movement of the Mathis Symphony and, in a special afternoon tribute to Keene, of the Nimrod movement from Elgar's Enigma Variations, were inspired and inspiring.]

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