Breathing New Life Into Lost Jewish Music

  • The Washington Post

Pro Musica Hebraica, a concert series dedicated to exploring lost Jewish music, had a successful inaugural concert on Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Jewish music can mean a lot of things, and the program smartly centered on a group of self-defined Jewish composers from 1908 St. Petersburg. Youthful Juilliard School ensembles and violin luminary Itzhak Perlman gave wonderfully prepared and vibrant performances of each score, most of which have likely not been heard in more than half a century.

The personal foundation of Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer and his wife, Robyn, is underwriting the series, and the sold-out audience was filled with fellow conservative pundits, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Listeners warmly greeted the introductory remarks and the solid musicmaking.

The St. Petersburg composers, members of the Society for Jewish Folk Music, brought stylized rhythms and modern sounds to traditional tunes. In Alexander Krein’s “Jewish Sketches” No. 2, Op. 13, an earthy melody once commonly heard in Eastern European shtetls is first cloaked in thick textures and stretched to abstraction, but later becomes more recognizable.

The clarinet is closely associated with this music, and the instrumentation for clarinet and string quartet further revealed the music’s klezmer origins. The same forces — the Biava Quartet and clarinetist Tibi Cziger — gave a beautifully paced and colorful reading of contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” which applies more astringent harmonies.

Joel Engel’s “Dybbuk Suite,” Op. 35, incidental music from a forgotten play, arched from weighty darkness toward light and freedom, while the N-E-W Trio, a polished piano trio, gave a lithe and flowing account of Solomon Rosowsky’s “Fantastic Dance,” Op. 6, and Mikhail Gnesin’s Piano Trio, Op. 63.

With that well-known elegiac sound, Perlman and longtime accompanying pianist Rohan De Silva brought out the nostalgic quality of Leo Zietlin’s “Lament, O Zion.”

By the end, it was hard to disagree with the idea that these composers make up a definable school. The continual display of the ties that bind made for something of a uniform evening, but it was an auspicious start in any case.