To say that you’ll never think of Lot’s wife the same way after seeing Maya Beiser’s “Elsewhere,” a new “cello opera” that recently played at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, would be a gross understatement. In the Genesis story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife has no name — let alone speaking lines — and is primarily an example of the fate that awaits those who disobey divine instruction: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
In “Elsewhere,” Lot’s wife finds fine physical form in the magnificent, statuesque body of actress Helga Davis; chats across time through what Beiser calls an “imaginary ‘Skype’” with another woman facing her own apocalypse, and describes the way her morning cereal caught in her throat on the day she was forced from the home where she’d raised two daughters.
This stunning portrait of a reimagined biblical anti-heroine comes in the third and final segment of a 70-minute multimedia work that Beiser describes in her artist statement as “bearing witness” to the “particular suffering endured by women throughout the millennia and across the world.” Created with Robert Woodruff, who directs the piece, the collaborative project also counts among its notable contributors several prominent women artists, including composers Eve Beglarian and Missy Mazzoli, choreographer Brook Notary and playwright Erin Cressida Wilson.
Yet the most powerful voice in the production is unquestionably that of Beiser’s cello, which is every bit as expressive as a human voice but also does what a singer cannot — gliding effortlessly across four octaves, playing lush counterpoint and ethereal chords and, with the help of electronic effects like reverb and distortion, producing a host of unsettling otherworldly sounds. The success of the “cello opera” concept depends on the ability of a seated cellist, half hidden behind a bulky instrument, to enthrall in the manner of an elegantly costumed, angel-voiced diva striding out to center stage, and Beiser rises to the challenge. Even with dancers flitting about her, one’s eyes are drawn to her own graceful movement as music seems to well up out of her body. (Flowing chestnut hair to frame striking angular features and piercing blue eyes doesn’t hurt, either.) The New Yorker got it right when the magazine labeled the Israeli-born classical-music rebel a “cello goddess.”
Even without its clever premise, Jacob Garchik’s latest album would still make for great listening. This is the sort of music that makes you stop in your tracks and mutter, “What is that?” It’s not every day that one hears a trombone choir — let alone one augmented with sousaphone and slide trumpet — playing warm, enveloping tunes that sound like long-lost spirituals.
Garchik, a veteran performer and arranger for groups from the Kronos Quartet to Slavic Soul Party, has struck out on his own for this deeply personal project, a nine-part meditation called “The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album.” All the sounds heard on the disc, from the funny little slide trumpet on down, were recorded by Garchik himself, at his home studio in Brooklyn.
Garchik is a skilled brass player (and it’s dizzying to think of him laying down all those tracks one by one), but it’s the “atheist gospel” concept, of course, that’s his stroke of brilliance. Each piece in the elegant 30-minute suite is paired with a brief quotation — some biblical, others from secular saints like Stephen Hawking and Mark Twain — that raises a fundamental question about human existence and the nature of faith. As Garchik writes in the liner notes, “music and religion are both amazing reflections of human creativity,” and this album is an experiment in gospel music by a non-believing Jew. The happy surprise is that these musical-philosophical vignettes are as stirring and expressive as familiar religious works. Listening to them, you feel as though being all on your own in the universe might not be so bad, after all.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to brush up on Israeli history before watching “Gei Oni,” the new Dan Wolman film based on Shulamit Lapid’s novel of the same name. Set in the late 19th century, the story takes place during the first wave of European immigration to Ottoman-ruled Palestine, when Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe arrived at the Port of Jaffa in search of new lives. While the film’s main characters are fictional, a few historical figures also make appearances. These include the British Zionist, author, Christian mystic and onetime member of Parliament Laurence Oliphant and the poet Naftali Herz Imber, best known for writing the lyrics to “Hatikvah” in 1878. The real-life Oliphant took Herz Imber as his secretary when he traveled to Palestine in 1882 with the aim of assisting Jewish settlement there.
But one need not know the first thing about Laurence Oliphant — or indeed much about 19th-century Palestine — in order to get swept up in a subtle, deftly told love story in which politics play only a minor part. Wolman has billed “Gei Oni” as a historical epic, but his focus is more intimate than that description suggests. The film follows Fanya (Tamar Alkan), a young Russian woman who, after having seen much of her family murdered in a pogrom in Ukraine, arrives in Jaffa with her infant daughter, elderly uncle, and an emotionally handicapped brother. Adrift in a foreign city, Fanya searches for work to support her dependents, but soon finds herself married off to Yechiel (Zion Ashkenazi), a widower with two children. Yechiel takes his new wife to “Gei Oni,” a small settlement near Safed, where he and other Jewish settlers are engaged in the grueling labor of attempting to cultivate barren, rocky land they bought from local Arabs.
You might not recognize Raymond Scott’s name, but chances are that you’ve heard his music — and that it makes you anxious. That’s because Scott’s “Powerhouse” (1937), easily his best known work, has been used to accompany scenes of mechanized peril in everything from the classic 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons to “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and a Visa check card commercial. As Warner Bros. animator, director and historian Greg Ford notes in “Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott,” a new documentary film by the composer’s son, Stan Warnow, the disquieting “Powerhouse” became the go-to choice for scoring animated scenes of panic on the assembly line. Raymond Scott (1908-1994) never wrote with animated films in mind (Warner Bros. simply licensed Scott’s back catalogue in 1941), but it’s fitting that he should be forever linked to the image of a swiftly moving conveyor belt — a contraption that makes its operators struggle to keep pace.
A technophile and jazz musician who was out of step with his time, Scott made a living writing for popular film and television of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but spent his free time experimenting at the frontier of electronic music. As he refined his inventions — early synthesizers and sequencers — Scott envisioned a future in which machines could make music all on their own.
Born Harry Warnow to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Scott learned the piano by placing his fingers over the moving keys of a player piano in his parents’ house. Fascinated by gadgets, he planned to become an engineer, but was persuaded to attend the Institute of Musical Art, the school that would later become Juilliard. Hired as a staff pianist for CBS radio in 1931, Scott started composing original pieces that went over so well with the CBS audience that producer Herb Rosenthal let him form his own group, the Raymond Scott Quintette. After a Hollywood tour performing with the quintet in 20th Century Fox films like “Ali Baba Goes to Town” and the Shirley Temple vehicle “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” Scott returned to CBS in New York and formed a big band. Breaking the network’s rule, Scott insisted on including black as well as white members in the group, assembling the first racially integrated studio orchestra in 1942.
What’s your socialist bubbe got to do with the Queen of Pop? That’s the question at the heart of “The Material World,” the new Dan Fishback musical headlining this summer’s HOT! Festival at New York City’s Dixon Place. The setting for the show is a dream-world 1920s Bronx boarding house where a family of Russian Jewish socialists lives with Madonna, Britney Spears and a gay teenager plotting a Facebook revolution.
Though Fishback, a 30-year-old playwright, performance artist and 2007 recipient of a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, cautions that the play isn’t strictly autobiographical, “The Material World” draws inspiration from his family’s socialist roots. His great-grandfather was sent to Siberia after the 1905 revolution and, following a daring escape from Russia (hidden under a train car, according to Fishback family lore), found his way to the Bronx and became the chief compositor of the Forverts. As girls, Fishback’s paternal grandmother and her two sisters were members of the Young People’s Socialist League, and were raised in a household where the prominent socialist writers of the time stopped by to debate politics around the kitchen table.
A fourth-generation activist, Fishback demonstrated against the Iraq war as a college student in the early 2000s, following in the footsteps of his father, who was involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and ’70s. “I grew up thinking Martin Luther King Day was a Jewish holiday because we celebrated it in shul,” Fishback told the Forward in a recent interview. Political commitment was valued so strongly among his family members and their circle of friends, he said, that he grew up viewing the revolutionary spirit as more essential to Jewish identity than religious belief. “My grandmother sort of humored my parents by joining our synagogue,” Fishback said, “but she would turn to me in the middle of a service and whisper, ‘God doesn’t exist.’” (Her sister was Ruth Barcan Marcus, the noted philosopher and logician who died in February.)
The first time Anthony Russell heard Sidor Belarsky (1898-1975), on the soundtrack for the Coen brothers film “A Serious Man,” he thought it was Paul Robeson singing in Yiddish. Russell, an African-American classically trained operatic bass, wasn’t yet familiar with work of the Ukrainian-American opera singer and conservator of Jewish music, but he was drawn in by the deep, dark timbre of Belarsky’s voice.
After devouring Belarsky recordings available through Florida Atlantic University’s Judaica Sound Archives, Russell was hooked, and the discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. After a decade performing on operatic stages in New York and in the San Francisco Bay Area, Russell was ready for a change. And as a recent convert to Judaism, he was looking for opportunities to perform for Jewish audiences.
Since then Russell has been performing Yiddish works from Sidor Belarsky’s songbook at New York City venues such as the Sholom Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx, the JCC in Manhattan and the Hebrew Actors Union, and even for Belarsky’s 91-year-old daughter, Isabel, at her home in Brighton Beach. In August he’ll travel to Toronto to sing at the Ashkenaz Festival.
The Arty Semite recently caught up with Russell to talk about Yiddish art song, Brahms and opera — and about what Paul Robeson and Sidor Belarsky might have in common, after all.
Eileen Reynolds: Did you know any Yiddish when you started the Belarsky project?
On March 26, a day after the premiere of the new season of “Mad Men,” a group of New Yorkers packed into Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher hall to soak up another dose of mid-century nostalgia: the New York Philharmonic’s spring gala program “Anywhere I Wander: The Frank Loesser Songbook,” featuring the works of the Jewish composer and lyricist who reigned during the glitzy heyday of the American musical comedy.
It was Marvin Hamlisch who wrote that “everyone is beautiful at the ballet” — no one, to my knowledge, has ever claimed the same about the philharmonic — and yet on this chilly spring evening an air of old-fashioned glamour wafted through the hall. Women wore furs; champagne was sipped. As the orchestra noodled onstage, the trumpeter practicing not a tough lick from Tchaikovsky but rather the swelling, love-struck strains of Loesser’s “Rosemary,” something like titillation rippled through the crowd.
I suspect that certain people like hearing the Philharmonic — in this case led by Ted Sterling with a lineup of Broadway veterans and opera superstar Bryn Terfel — play this sort of thing more than they care to admit. Broadway tunes are what orchestras trot out for outdoor picnics and the pops concerts that make classical music purists wince, and yet it’s significant that the Philharmonic has chosen to feature musical theater composers (Loesser this year, Stephen Sondheim the past two) when the goal is to delight its most generous patrons, who are ostensibly devotees of more serious fare.
Photo by Pawel Mazur
The Other Europeans’ impressive new live album, “Splendor,” should carry the subtitle “Everything You Wanted To Know About Klezmer and Lautar Music But Were Afraid To Ask.” Would you bet on your ability to differentiate klezmer from so-called “Gypsy” music in a simple drop-the-needle listening test? Before this recording, even those of us who had our horas and doinas down pat might have squirmed if asked to describe, in precise musical terms, the particular characteristics that set these two Eastern European musical traditions apart.
“Splendor,” aside from being a blast to listen to, is also a fascinating educational primer on two distinct cultural strains that made up the ethnically mixed urban music of pre–World War II Bessarabia (today’s Republic of Moldova). In the same way that Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble have explored the ancient musical connections between Western Europe and the Far East, Alan Bern and The Other Europeans have zeroed in on a period during which klezmer and lautar (Roma, or “Gypsy”) musicians played together in mixed ensembles for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
Bah humbug! This is a trying month for those of us with sensitive ears. Which is worse: the saccharine “holiday” drivel saturating the airwaves, or the ceaseless griping of those cheerless snobs who make a winter sport of proclaiming their distaste for the season’s musical offerings?
It hardly takes a musical genius to wince at the slickly packaged yuletide schlock churned out by aging crooners and fresh-faced pop starlets in time for the shopping season each year. Yet I’ve never quite understood what it means to “hate Christmas music,” as so many broadly claim to do. Must one loathe hymns? (Insensitive!) Or detest Handel? (Impossible!) Is it enough to find Mannheim Steamroller profoundly embarrassing? (Doesn’t everyone?)
It’s easy to poke fun, but, as a recent concert by the New York Festival of Song emphatically proved, there is a good bit to love about Christmas music — especially when you approach it from a firmly Jewish perspective. It’s a pity that there were only two performances (November 29 and December 1 at the Kaufman Center) of “A Goyishe Christmas to You!,” because I’d challenge any Grinch to sit through this festive soiree and not emerge to find his undersized heart bursting with good tidings.
Courtesy of GAT publicity
The Klezmatics are 25 this year (where does the time go?), and to mark the anniversary, they’ve released “Live at Town Hall,” a two-disc recording of a performance given in New York five years ago. That concert, itself an exuberant 20th anniversary celebration, was recorded in conjunction with “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground,” a documentary also released in honor of the band’s silver anniversary year. This is the group’s first self-produced album, and — perhaps owing to the financial struggles alluded to in the documentary — they’ve raised all the money for the promotion of the project themselves, through a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.
Any new release from The Klezmatics is cause for excitement, and yet one gets the sense that a lot is being recycled in this case, with the album and the film doing double duty for two major milestones. Devoted fans will also note that there’s no strictly new material on these two discs — each of the pieces has been previously recorded on one album or another.
Still, this is less a shlocky greatest-hits album than a pleasant trip down memory lane. The pieces on “Live at Town Hall” are arranged more or less chronologically, so that listening to them is a bit like hearing the band’s decades-long evolution in fast-forward. The Klezmatics’ first compositions — traditional tunes re-imagined for albums like “Shvaygn=Toyt,” (1988) “Rhythm and Jews” (1990) and “Jews With Horns” (1990) — hold up remarkably well, with the mature musicians breathing new life into what always were wonderfully creative arrangements.
“You may find it implausible that we are announcing a world premiere by the venerable (and dead) American composer Aaron Copland,” boasts the press release for saxophonist-composer Christopher Brellochs’s new CD, “Quiet City.”
Implausible, yes, and perhaps only half true. The piece in question is the score Copland wrote to accompany an Irwin Shaw play of the same name. The play flopped after its dress rehearsal in April 1939, never to be produced again. Copland’s original manuscript, which called for a small chamber group made up of trumpet, saxophone, clarinets and piano, was never published. However — and here’s the rub — the composer did convert a substantial portion of his original material into a 10-minute piece for trumpet, English horn and string orchestra. That piece premiered in 1941, and has been performed frequently since. A couple of haunting themes that Copland wrote for Shaw’s “Quiet City” also found their way into his 1940 score for the film adaptation of “Our Town,” which in turn spawned its own orchestral suite.
The bottom line is that, if you’ve heard orchestras play either of the “Quiet City” or “Our Town” suites, you aren’t going to be shocked by what Brellochs has uncovered in the original manuscript. (He came across it during his doctoral studies with saxophonist and historian Paul Cohen at Rutgers University.) There is some never-before heard music in Brellochs’s “new” chamber version of the “Quiet City” material, but the most obvious difference between this and the familiar orchestral piece is the instrumentation: Themes that sound grand and romantic over the swell of strings take on a lonelier, more melancholy quality in the original arrangement.
Photo by Angela Jimenez.
At a July 26 concert at 92YTribeca in celebration of New York’s first legal same-sex marriages, the singer-guitarist Nedra Johnson struggled to find the words to describe the relationships between love, politics and the blues. In an age in which sex and marriage are subjects of legislative debate, she reasoned, performing a sultry blues lullaby about her love for another woman — even if she had little but longing in her mind when she wrote it — is always construed as a political act.
What Johnson was grasping for was some 21st-century version of the second-wave feminist creed: “The personal is political.” When Carol Hanisch published her 1969 essay with that title, she meant that issues like reproductive rights and the sharing of childcare responsibilities — then scorned by some activists as “personal” problems not to be discussed in the public sphere — were inextricably linked to the struggle for so-called “political” rights like equal pay in the workplace.
Forty years later, with the battle for legal rights now firmly entrenched in the bedroom, something as intimate as a love song — especially a racy one written by a lesbian — can indeed pack political wallop. With Johnson, a 2006 OUTMUSIC award recipient, opening for Isle of Klezbos, an all-female klezmer band that performs, among other things, tunes from old Yiddish films with queer subtexts, a new equal-rights slogan came to mind: The musical is political, too.
It would not be hard to make a party game of picking out the global influences in the New York-based band Hazmat Modine’s new album, “Cicada.” There’s a Latin groove here; a klezmer-ish flourish there; a hint of Jamaican rocksteady; an intermittent country twang; whole tracks featuring a West African brass band. Music by lesser groups would seem to demand an academic treatment, entreating us to catalogue — and to congratulate the musicians for — each eclectic scrap and esoteric musical reference.
The difference between those bands and this one is that Hazmat Modine’s music really works. This is potent stuff that, rather than stirring that old impulse to dissect and label, produces a tickly feeling behind the solar plexus. The thought isn’t “What is this?” let alone, “Is that balalaika that I hear?” Rather, it’s “Where’s the party?”
Photo by Peter James Zielinski
There are times when a trip to the theater is more than just an evening out — times when there’s something in the air (fairy dust? a benevolent ghost?) that transforms a merely great performance into the kind that makes all your hairs stand on end. June 26, for those of us squeezed into folding chairs in a tiny brick room at the Manhattan Theatre Source, was one of those rare, goosebumpy nights.
It was two days after New York’s Marriage Equality Act had passed in the state legislature, and mere hours after the year’s particularly festive gay pride parade had sauntered past Washington Square. Bits of rainbow-colored confetti and stray streamers still littered the cobblestone streets. And there we were, in a funny old building on MacDougal Street — just blocks from the Stonewall Inn — watching a musical revue all about the history of Greenwich Village.
It goes without saying that Meira Warshauer’s “Tekeeyah (a call)” — a concerto for shofar — centers on religious themes. At the heart of the work is the pulsating call to repentance traditionally trumpeted through a ram’s horn on the High Holy Days. What’s less obvious is that Warshauer’s first symphony, the other major orchestral work on her new album, “Living Breathing Earth,” also stems from a spiritual impulse. At a CD launch event at New York’s Kaufman Center on June 20, the composer described the four-movement symphony as her “prayer for the health of the Earth.”
A self-described “environmentalist since the first Earth Day in 1970,” Warshauer is profoundly troubled by climate change, deforestation, and other ecological horrors that humans have wrought. And yet, this is far from an angry piece. In the symphony, she imagines the planet at its most tranquil and pristine. When offering a prayer on behalf of the sick, Warshauer reasoned, one strives to envision the ill person as “totally well and radiant.” Doesn’t the Earth deserve the same level of devotion?
‘Quiet’ by Arkadi Zaides, featuring Rabie Khoury and Ofir Yudilevich. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
In his welcoming remarks on the opening night of the the La MaMa Moves! Festival’s Contemporary Israeli Dance Week (June 8-12), Edo Ceder, of the New York-based YelleB Dance Ensemble, talked about “dancing from the gut.” That evocative phrase could have been an alternate title for the cumbersomely named festival-within-a-festival, which featured performances from nine different contemporary Israeli dance groups — five based in New York and four brought in from Israel just for the occasion.
I couldn’t help thinking, as I looked at those strong, lean bodies, that dancers don’t really have guts — at least not the flabby kind that we can see. But on that first evening the performers did seem to draw from emotional reserves somewhere deep within themselves. They writhed in agony on the ground; they stood defiantly on their heads; sometimes, they transfixed just by standing still.
Is there a grouch in the world who can maintain a proper scowl while listening to French swing? There is something about the sound of this music (is it the sweet, kaleidoscopic chord changes, or the bouncy, peripatetic bass lines?) that seems to rob even the devout pessimist of any meaningful sense of gloom. Wistfulness is possible, yes: One sighs with vague nostalgia for some half-forgotten past, but it’s difficult to concentrate on the horrors of the present or the hopelessness of the future with all those guitars and ukuleles thrumming in one’s ears.
The New York-based band Les Chauds Lapins, led by Meg Reichardt and Forward art director Kurt Hoffman, specializes in this sort of mood-lifting music, and their new album, “Amourettes,” is a repository of hits from the French pop charts of the 1920s, ‘30, and ‘40s re-imagined and rearranged to maximum grin-inducing effect. Love is the subject of this collection, of course, but we sense — even before glancing at the English translations of the French lyrics — that these aren’t, for the most part, songs about pining, whining, or serious regret. Here is ardor at its most cheerily casual: We picture couples dancing on breezy evenings after too much wine, or whiling away sunny afternoons with books and teasing and naps.
“Rockets on the Balcony,” Omer Klein’s fourth album and his Tzadik Records debut, is also his first self-consciously Jewish record. In the liner notes, Klein explains that when John Zorn first approached him about the project, he was reluctant to make “calculated evaluations as to what counts as Jewish music and what doesn’t.” But over the course of working on the album, Klein developed a knack for labeling each of his pieces as either “Jewish” or “not-Jewish.”
For those of us who cling to a romantic vision of the creative process — an image of the artist’s various influences simmering together in some delicious subconscious stew — it jars a little to hear Klein describe his oeuvre in these stark terms. The good news, though, is that Klein is a gifted jazz pianist who can riff on just about anything. A few of the pieces on “Rockets on the Balcony” started as what Klein describes as an “exercise” in writing folk tunes, and in their clumsiest moments, we can too easily hear the composer’s effort to come up with something that sounds homespun. Blessedly, though, these introductions don’t last long; far more exciting than Klein’s faux-folk melodies are the pleasing improvisations that come out of them.
“The Klezmatics are the Jewish equivalent of arena rock,” ethnomusicologist Bob Cohen deadpans early in Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.” “They’re not heavy metal; they’re heavy Yiddish.”
It’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek analysis calculated to make us chuckle (picture these mild-mannered, middle-aged folks head-banging in eyeliner and platform heels!) — and yet there’s truth in Cohen’s quip. The Klezmatics are, in a certain sense, a big-time group, having achieved a level of name recognition that’s rare in world music circles, and — it would seem to go without saying — rarer still for contemporary groups who sing in Yiddish. From an ethnomusicologist’s perspective, they’re interesting because they don’t just mimic old recordings: Here is something that at least approximates a living tradition — new tunes are composed, old tunes combined with jazz and gospel elements, Yiddish lyrics written about workers’ rights and gay pride. The group has been together for 20 years, released nine albums, collaborated with Itzhak Perlman and Nora Guthrie, and won a Grammy Award. And now, another milestone: The Klezmatics are famous enough that someone thought to make a documentary about them.
One might be forgiven, upon first listening to the NAXOS recording of Avner Dorman’s concertos performed by Andrew Cyr’s Metropolis Ensemble, for not feeling immediately convinced that these are, in fact, concertos in any traditional sense. There are no buoyant Mozartian introductions here, no grand orchestral pauses to launch soloists into rapturously virtuosic cadenzas before a triumphant final cadence. Those squeamish about contemporary orchestral music might initially recoil from what is strange and new in Dorman’s work: unsettling harmonies, unusual pairings of instruments, extended instrumental techniques. Ultimately, though, there is plenty here that is familiar. Dorman, a 35-year-old Israeli composer and protégé of John Corigliano and Zubin Mehta, has an eclectic approach — borrowing elements from jazz, pop, and Middle Eastern musical idioms — that makes his music surprisingly accessible.
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