Nice Jewish Music

by Glen Roven

Glen Roven, Emmy Award winner, is a composer, lyricist, conductor, pianist, translator and CD Producer.
When American song writer Jerome Kern announced he was going to write a show based on Marco Polo, an enthusiastic reporter asked, “Mr. Kern, your new musical is based on an Italian who crossed the Alps and then the Leviathan desert, got to Mongolia, then China and finally returned home to Italy. For heaven’s sake, what type of music will you compose?” Kern answered without missing a beat, “Nice Jewish Music.” (Oh, I hope that’s true.)

Last Monday, I went to my favorite venue in the city, SubCulture (160 seats-the friendliest staff and a bar that actually closes during the performances) to see CONTACT! a Co-Presentation of 92nd Street Y and the New York Philharmonic, the seminal series dedicating to performing new music. This concert was called New Music from Israel, and yes it was “nice Jewish music!”

Substituting for an indisposed Lisa Batiashvili was the erudite Yotam Haber (picture right), a composer I deeply admire, Israeli or not. In fact, I knew the music of all four of the composers but had never once thought of three of them as particularly Israeli, although somewhere in my mind I guess I knew they were all born there.

As Haber took pains to explain in his welcome speech, Israel today is a melting pot; what it means to be Israeli is completely different than what I meant forty years ago. He joked that what was being presented was a Me'orav yerushalmi, or Jerusalem Mix, a grilled mix of meats that is often served before a meal. He talked about the dilemma of writing “nationalistic” music. Before the twentieth century most classical music did indeed have a nationalistic sound, perhaps not because of a composer’s personal politics but simply because traveling to other parts of Europe, let alone the world, was exceedingly difficult, and for geographical reasons composers were mostly exposed to music of their compatriots. A national sound developed almost by default. In today’s world of instant down-loads from iTunes, or actually ever since air travel became the norm, the nationalist sound of various regions became diffuse; a composer almost has to consciously decide to write music that would be deemed nationalistic.

The first composer presented Joseph Bardanashvili (picture left) was born in Georgia in 1948 and didn’t move to Israel until 1995. Since then he has been one of the countries most performed composers and it’s easy to see why judging from the movement selected from his String Quartet No. 1, Quasi danza macabre.

As the music began, I felt it couldn’t be less Israeli if it tried. The danza kicked off with a riotous tango, the rhythms directly from Argentina but the harmonies directly from Bardanashvili’s fertile imagination. It was as if Astor Piazolla, suddenly inspired, discovered Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky. The syncopations, the disjointed rhythms and the delicious harmonies made for a perfect opening. But suddenly as the first section dissolved into the second by way of an astounding cello cadenza (played by the Nathan Vickery,) we high-tailed it out of Argentina, and via El Al landed directly at Ben Gurion Airport.

The music turned decidedly modal, with the aching and longings of a wandering Jew, and we were smack in the Old City of Jerusalem. The cello and occasionally the viola kept the incessant beat with a macabre pedal tone as the two violins danced high above with shimmering, but steely harmonics.

The main theme returned at the end and the piece came to a rousing climax with a reprise of the infectious tango, the perfect way to open this me'orav yerushalmi.

Next up was Haber’s own piece, and though I adore Haber’s minimalist style with his post-Adams tunefulness and post-Glass syncopations this piece, Estro Poetico-armonico II was a dense concentration of sounds and pitches far removed from anything I’ve heard of his before. Suggested by the story of Benedetto Marcello, a Venetian contemporary of J.S. Bach’s who hid in the Synagogue transcribing the ancient melodies, Haber took snippets of these tunes and compressed them into musical atoms. This piece was an interesting contradiction: the densest musically as well as the sparest. I loved how the “tunes” seemed to surface through the lowest notes of the bass clarinet (Lino Gomez) and then swirl into the modular trillings’ of the violins.

Shulamit Ran (picture left), the second woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for music was perhaps the most well-known of the quartet although her piece, Mirage for five players seemed to me a minor work from a great composer.

I was most looking forward to hearing the piece by Avner Dorman (picture right), the composer I would have mentioned if someone asked me to name and Israeli composer. I was lucky enough to hear his outrageous piece at the NY Phil, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!  in 2009 featuring the now (sadly) disbanded Perca-duo, one of the most sensational performance of a new piece I’ve ever heard. Dorman did not let me down with his, aptly titled, Jerusalem Mix.  Blasting off with the rhythms of New York with more than a touch of Bernstein and Gershwin, the syncopated phrases engulfed the audience and took us on a virtually tour of the night-life of New York City. But then just as suddenly as in the Bardanashvili, we were in Tel Aviv with Marc Nuccio on the clarinet and Sherry Sylar, oboe, inviting us to a Jewish Wedding. Of course, with Dorman, this is no let’s-all-improvise-on-D-minor-and-dance-a-hora-type music, but a deeply contrapuntal excursion into the vernacular.

All through the evening I kept trying to hear any sort of unifying sound that would link these three disparate composers. It seems that in all of the pieces, surrounded by vibrant rhythms of dance and exotic colors was an aura of sadness, loneliness and desperation. I wonder if that’s the “nice Jewish music.”

And a postscript:

Before the CONTACT! concert, I went to the York Theater on Lexington (which  is completely unmarked, can they please fix that?) for a staged reading of an operatic version The Sleeping Beauty.  The composer, Benjamin Wenzelberg (in the picture), age 15, has been working on the opera since he was 11. He won the 2014 BMI Student Composer Award and a 2015 National Young Arts Foundation Merit winner. He sings in the Met Children’s chorus, was a composer at Tangelwood last summer, studies composition and conducting at Juilliard and I saw him as Miles in the NYCO production of The Turn of the Screw. I never use the “G” word, but if I did, I would burden Wenzelberg with it. So how was the opera? Wonderful. This was a true opera full of recitatives, choruses and arias that define and delineate character but most importantly it is music driven, not surprising for a young composer who grew up singing at the Met, but still. Plus Wenzelberg enlisted his “friends,” to perform, nice to have friends like the legendary Soprano Lauren Flanigan who was at the top of her game. Watch out for this kid!



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