Pro Musica Hebraica, The Biava Quartet

  • All Arts Review

In a city bracing for seemingly inevitable cultural cut-backs, suspensions and extinctions, the audacity of sustaining the emergence of an entirely new musical organization must be applauded. The Baltimore Opera Company has moved into liquidation, and Washington’s Master Chorale plans to suspend operations. But Charles Krauthammer and his wife Robyn Krauthammer have boldly created Pro Musica Hebraica to perform and “recover” Jewish classical music.

Last night the group’s third performance nearly filled the seats of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater for a stimulating concert that opened with Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 4 in D major, a20string quartet that would have been deeply offensive to Stalin because of its obvious reliance on Jewish folk music. The piece received its first public performance four years after it was written, following the death of Stalin. Violinist Adam Hartman and his companions in the Biava Quartet emphasized the melodic splendors of this piece, which may have startled some in the audience accustomed to a Shostakovich often more sarcastically bombastic or hesitatingly propagandistic.

The four remaining composers represented on the program all had Russian roots, and two had been part of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg. As in gold mining, the recovery of forgotten music can entail a great deal of excavation for the release of very little of true value. This seemed to be the case with Joseph Achron’s Four Improvisations of 1927. Not particularly Jewish in melodic content, and certainly not very Russian in sound (having been written after Achron had arrived in Los Angeles to work for Hollywood film studios), this piece seemed to demonstrate20only a particular tenacity of intention by the programmers. Not having been performed “in possibly over eighty years,” its violently episodic nature offered little to link it to the rest of the program.

The most interesting piece of the evening was certainly Aleksandr Zhitomirskii’s Dem rebens nigun (“The rabbi’s melody”) of 1910, the only piece composed in Russia before the Russian Revolution and thus a direct, immediate outgrowth of the original impulse that led Jewish musicians with formal conservatory training to explore folk strains at a time when musicians in many European countries were giving folk music close examination, with startling and impressive results as much of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams or Bela Bartok can demonstrate.

Leo Zeitlin’s Five Songs from the Yiddish required the voices of mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway and baritone Alexander Tall, and the audience’s response to the glorious voice of Calloway suggested that another program better showcasing her talents might prove very successful.

Although the program notes suggested something unusual had occurred in the rescue of several of these forgotten pieces, most neglected music must be rediscovered from surviving manuscripts and the wholesale rediscovery of Baroque music in the late twentieth century suggests how worthwhile such efforts have often been.