Years ago, if a French composer had too many Jewish associates, it was assumed he was Jewish too. Thus Maurice Ravel, of Basque origin, was included in “Judentum und Musik,” a 1937 Nazi publication, as noted in the well-researched “The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich” by Michael H. Kater.
A Ravel amanuensis, possibly his Belgian Jewish critic friend Roland-Manuel, demurred, even though Ravel’s pupils included Jews like the conductor/composer Manuel Rosenthal and pianist Vlado Perlemuter. Ravel’s genuine affection for Jewish culture led him to create works like “Deux mélodies hébraïques” (“Two Hebraic Melodies”) and “Chanson Hébraïque” (“Hebraic Song”).
On April 29 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., “An Evening of French Jewish Music” presented by Pro Musica Hebraica will include these Ravel works. Pro Musica Hebraica was founded by the political pundit Charles Krauthammer, whose qualified approval of torture last year raised some hackles, and his wife Robyn, an Australian-born painter/sculptor.
Approving of torture even in extreme cases may not seem like the most auspicious background for someone trying to attract a classical audience. Still, Robyn Krauthammer explains in her official website bio that Pro Musica Hebraica was born when it “became clear to her that there was a great ignorance of Jewish music beyond its context in liturgy or at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.” One can imagine the Krauthammer family’s delight in pointing out to friends and loved ones the full extent of their “great ignorance.”
Performing at the concert will be the promising young Biava Quartet, an ensemble anchored by an exuberantly gifted cellist, Gwendolyn Krosnick, daughter of the veteran cellist Joel Krosnick, himself a member since 1974 of the exceedingly venerable Juilliard String Quartet.
Other works to be performed on April 29 in Washington by composers who actually were Jewish include a 1973 string quartet by Darius Milhaud, who was much attached to his Southern French Jewish roots. Milhaud’s quartet is based on liturgical themes from “Comtat Venaissin,” the old-style name for the area around the city of Avignon, where in the Middle Ages, Jews temporarily enjoyed relatively benign treatment. Milhaud’s decidedly non-liturgical ballet “La Création du Monde” in an arrangement for piano quintet, as well as the Fifth Quartet by Alexandre Tansman will also be heard, among other works. Torture, begone!