Yiddish Classical Music in America

From New Music USA:

There is a saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Yiddish, the historic language of Central and East European Jewry, never had either and suffered miscategorization as a jargon and corruption of German. On the contrary, Yiddish is an extraordinarily rich language with a remarkable literary and folk culture. It is a fusion of medieval Germanic dialects with Hebrew and Aramaic, and components drawn from other language families as well. It is written with the Hebrew Alphabet (from right to left), has its own grammar, and a variety of regional dialects.

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Review: WEINBERG Symphonies – Nos 2 & 21,‘Kaddish’ (Gražinytė-Tyla)

From Gramophone:

The UK premiere of Symphony No 21 in Symphony Hall last November was a watershed moment for Weinberg’s reputation. It actually proved two things I wouldn’t have dared to predict: that one of his longest symphonies (55 minutes, six movements without a break, composed in 1991) could hold a full-size regular concert audience enthralled from first note to last, and that it could comfortably withstand the comparison with Shostakovich’s Fifteenth in the second half. The appearance of this performance on a major prestige label will surely prove one of the highlights of this, his centenary year.

The work has a multi-resonance back-story. It is dedicated to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Weinberg often said his parents and sister died (though where they actually perished is less than clear) and subtitled Kaddish after the Jewish prayer traditionally recited in memory of the dead. 

Read the rest here.

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James Loeffler: Charles Krauthammer’s Gift to Jewish Music

James Loeffler, reflecting on Charles Krauthammer’s view of Pro Musica Hebraica’s mission:

As word grew of the Pro Musica Hebraica concert series, entreaties and proposals began to roll in from across the world. Inevitably, the media also came calling in search of a great story about how one of their own took up this quixotic cultural mission far removed from the day-to-day battles over American politics, Israel, and the Middle East, and even his own stated first love, baseball. Some saw it as an extension of his quiet generosity as a Washington philanthropist, in which capacity he helped to launch a local Jewish day school and other area educational programs. Others imagined it was somehow related to a preemptive defense of Israel. Neither was the case, at least from my perspective. For in our years of conversation about Jewish music, Charles Krauthammer the musical impresario revealed himself to be motivated by a remarkably simple set of convictions about the ennobling virtues of historical curiosity and the impoverishment of the American Jewish imagination.

Read the rest of James’ beautiful tribute to Charles at the Jewish Review of Books.

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Simon Wynberg on on the Rediscovery of Polish Composer Szymon Laks

Szymon Laks (1901-1983), the brilliant Jewish composer from Warsaw, survived the Nazi concentration camps in part thanks to his musical talents. Writing in Mosaic, Simon Wynberg, artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, considers how Laks’s candid memoir contributes to our understanding of the tragic role of music in the Nazi camps.

Beyond its obvious utility to the Nazis, did [the music] in any way ameliorate the suffering of the prisoners, recalling to their tortured spirits the persistence in the world of beauty, nobility, and grace? Could it even have instilled or rekindled the will to live?

Laks himself grants none of this. In his view, music was merely one more part of the madness, irrelevant to the quality or the mental stability of prisoners’ lives and powerless to reach them. He writes dispassionately about the marches played as labor detachments left in the morning and returned at night (always, it seemed, at a slower tempo); about the tunes from popular operettas played as macabre commentary at assemblies; and about the bespoke performances that indulged the cultural pretensions of SS officers. Whatever distraction music may have provided for the orchestra members themselves, he regards as delusory the notion that it served to heal or raise prisoners’ spirits. To the contrary, the privileges enjoyed by orchestra members—increased rations, reduced physical labor—were often bitterly resented and led to inevitable suspicions of collaboration.

Read the rest of the fascinating essay in Mosaic, where Wynberg further explains why Laks deserves recognition for his refusal to give in to the mid-century musical zeitgeist.

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The Quatuor Danel’s World Premiere of Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 3

Charles T. Downey reviews the Quatuor Danel’s Sunday afternoon concert at the Phillips Collection, a performance of the music of Mieczysław Weinberg and Dmitri Shostakovich that included the world premiere of Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 3:

The first movement pulsated with an obsessive moodiness, excepting some quieter moments in the middle. In the second movement, the unison playing of the second violinist, violist, and cellist was intense, with first violinist Marc Danel keening in alternation with it. Second violinist Gilles Millet had a sweet, more rarified sound when he took over that lament theme, matched by violist Vlad Bogdanas. The lovely fugue of the third movement, much of it played with mutes on, was based on a carefree subject betraying little of the cynical undercutting one might hear from Shostakovich.

The French string quartet follows the National Symphony Orchestra and Gidon Kremer’s January concert spotlighting Weinberg’s works, as well as Pro Musica Hebraica’s decade-long efforts to bring recognition to the Polish composer as one of last century’s greatest forgotten musical voices.

Read the rest of Downey’s review at Washington Classical Review.

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