Pro Musica Hebraica performs ‘lost’ Jewish works

  • The Baltimore Sun

For all of its celebrated universality, the language of music speaks with many different accents. A century ago, a group of Russian composers set out to explore one such accent by forming the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg, with the encouragement of such luminaries as Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Over the ensuing decades, for a variety of reasons, the products of these “St. Petersburg school” composers were mostly forgotten – an undeserved fate that is being vigorously reversed by a man better known for his deftly argued political opinions from a generally conservative perspective.

“Five or six years ago, my wife and I heard about the St. Petersburg school from a cantor who played a very scratchy recording of some pieces that we thought were really wonderful,” says Charles Krauthammer, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post. “We felt we should really do something to bring this music to the fore.”

The result is an organization called Pro Musica Hebraica, which bowed last April at the Kennedy Center with a concert featuring celebrated violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Biava Quartet in works by Alexander Krein, Joel Engel, Solomon Rosowsky and more.

Next week, for the second and final program of the 2009-2010 season, the Biava Quartet returns for a program of works by several more of those pioneering St. Petersburg composers, including Joseph Achron, Leo Zeitlin, Michel Michelet and Alexander Zhitomirsky.

“When the Society for Jewish Folk Music was registered in 1908 in St. Petersburg, an official added the word ‘folk’ because he didn’t think Jews were capable of anything else,” Krauthammer says.

Society members did collect traditional material – “They sent teams into shtetls to record songs on wax cylinders,” Krauthammer says – but the composers also created dynamic new classical works that incorporated traditional Jewish musical idioms.

Then came the Russian Revolution. “After that cataclysmic event, the society lost its critical mass,” Krauthammer says.

“These composers took it on the chin three times in a row,” adds Jason Calloway, cellist in the Biava Quartet, which is in residence at New York’s Juilliard School. “Their music was basically suppressed during the revolution, then again under Stalin, and later from unofficial, institutionalized anti-Semitism.”

Several of the St. Petersburg school participants ended up emigrating, some to the United States. One example was the Kiev-born Michelet (born Mikhail Levin), whose 1923 Elegie will be performed at next week’s concert. He settled in Hollywood, where he wrote more than 100 film scores. “He ended up in a different realm entirely,” Krauthammer says.

Achron also entered that realm, settling in Los Angeles in 1925. “He is known to most of us only for the Hebrew Melody for violin and piano from 1911, a standard violinist’s encore,” says Calloway.

The Biava Quartet will play Achron’s obscure Four Improvisations from 1927 next week. “It’s a curious thing to be giving what is probably the world premiere of something that’s more than 80 years old,” Calloway says.

Krauthammer’s wife, painter and sculptor Robyn Krauthammer, who serves as the organization’s CEO, and research director James Loeffler, assistant professor of European Jewish history at the University of Virginia, seek out the works that are featured in Pro Musica Hebraica concerts. “Their taste and judgment is far superior to mine,” says Krauthammer, who is the group’s chairman. “I wouldn’t trust my ear.”

Initial funding for Pro Musica Hebraica came from the columnist’s “very, very small” Krauthammer Foundation. “I didn’t have the chutzpah to ask anyone for money, especially before the first concert,” he says.

Plans call for two programs each season at the Kennedy Center. Other venues have been contemplated, “but taking this on the road is hard for a small organization,” says Krauthammer. Archival and studio recordings are on his wish list.

“I want this music to have a continuity,” Krauthammer adds. The Biava Quartet is doing its part; since the inaugural concert last spring, the ensemble has performed some of the work in other venues. “This sort of endeavor is, frankly, far more valuable than simply regurgitating all the canonized works,” Calloway says.

Krauthammer, a former psychiatrist who earned his medical degree at Harvard Medical School after being paralyzed in a diving mishap during his freshman year, admits that he is in unfamiliar territory as a concert presenter.

“Before my accident, I played classical guitar,” he says. “But I never considered music my forte intellectually. I have fairly pedestrian musical tastes. Now that I’ve gotten into this, it moves me. I remember the first minute of the first concert. It was so transcendent.”

While some people may be surprised to find Krauthammer involved in a project far removed from the political-commentary arena, he says, “This is not a way for my wife and I to amuse ourselves in society. It will sound corny and self-serving, but our interest is in the music. I just want to bring the variety of Jewish culture to the world.”