Leonard Cohen is not a very prolific artist. In a 47-year music career he has made just 13 studio albums, along with a passel of live releases. (Compare that with Bob Dylan’s 35, or Neil Young’s 39 solo records.) But despite the relatively small size of Cohen’s catalog, it still has a lot of underappreciated gems. Here are 12 songs that seem to me to be unjustly overlooked, in honor of Cohen’s 80th year. Happy birthday, Leonard!
1. “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” 1969
I’ve always preferred Cohen’s first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” to his second, “Songs From a Room,” partly because I’ve never been a huge fan of “Bird on a Wire,” the most famous track from the second album. But the 1969 release does have this sad and beautiful tune, one of several Cohen songs to address the subject of suicide. In this performance, from the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, he explains some of the background as well.
The first song on Isabel Rose’s new CD is “Lot of Livin’ To Do,” an especially appropriate choice. She has already packed a lot of living into her, uh, years on planet Earth.
“I don’t want to distract people,” Rose said about her age. In a phone interview with the Forward, she added, “I prefer they not focus on whether I look good for my age. That is too much of a preoccupation, too much of a distraction from a person’s work.”
As it happens, Rose has an extremely lengthy and varied body of work for a person of any age. She acted at the Williamstown Theater Festival, landing a main stage production just weeks out of school; she’s written a best-selling novel (“The J.A.P. Chronicles”) that she subsequently turned into an off-Broadway one-woman musical; she wrote the screenplay and starred in an independent film (“Anything But Love”); and, now, her new album of standards, “Trouble in Paradise,” which drops September 16.
Rose spoke to the Forward about her family — she’s the scion of the wealthy, influential and charitable New York real estate clan — about Friday night Jewish song fests, and what she wants to do when she grows up.
Curt Schleier: I read somewhere that your family prefers a low profile and wasn’t thrilled with your career choice.
Photo: Fumie Suzuki
So, there in a gazebo on the boardwalk in Coney Island are The Brothers Nazaroff, taking refuge from the steamy afternoon sun. It is 92 degrees and horribly humid outside as the five Nazaroffs start playing and singing. A Hungarian documentary crew is shooting with two cameras as the brothers sing “Lucky Jew,” so I have to be on my toes to stay out of the camera shots. My t-shirt is drenched with sweat but I realize that as awful as it is being outside in the heat and humidity, watching these spirited Yiddish musicians play their raucous repertoire does indeed make me a lucky Jew.
Billed as a “Yiddish supergroup,” The Brothers Nazaroff is a tribute band to an obscure Russian immigrant in New York known as Nathan “Prince” Nazaroff. The man is known mostly by hardcore Yiddish music lovers. He is called an outsider, though he did record an album for Moe Asch’s Folkways label in 1954 and Nazaroff promoted himself as an established entertainer. None of The Brothers Nazaroff are actually brothers or Nazaroffs. Danik Nazaroff, Pasha Nazaroff, Meyshke Nazaroff, Zaelic Nazaroff and Yankl Nazaroff are in fact Daniel Kahn of Painted Bird fame, genuine Russian Psoy Korolenko, Michael Alpert of Brave Old World, Bob Cohen of the Budapest-based Di Naye Kapelye and Jake Shulman-Ment, widely regard as one of the best working klezmer fiddlers on the planet.
Thanks to Cohen’s connections in the Hungarian arts scene, a well-funded documentary on the Nazaroff project was begun. Various Nazaroffs were flown to New York for the film, which will also shoot in Paris and Berlin, where 35 year-old Daniel Kahn is based.
(JTA) — A bronze sculpture of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), one of the last century’s towering musical figures, was unveiled last week at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).
The sculpture, by artist Penelope Jencks, is the second in a series planned depicting Tanglewood’s most iconic music figures, according to a statement issued by by the BSO. The first sculpture, also by Jencks, is of Aaron Copland, Bernstein’s teacher and mentor, who in 1940 recommended the young Bernstein for Serge Koussevitzky’s conducting class at Tanglewood.
Over the next 50 years, Bernstein, who went on to lead the New York Philharmonic, and later conducted around the world, frequently in Israel, became a highly-anticipated presence at the renowned music center, known for its pastoral scenery. “Tanglewood has always been, and will continue to be, the spiritual home of Leonard Bernstein,” said composer and Academy Award winner John Williams, whose donation to the BSO is funding the sculpture series. A courtyard at the music center is named after Bernstein.
The themes of many of Bernstein’s scores, including his Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms, reflected his Jewish roots. The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents, Bernstein wrote of the early musical influence of Solomon Braslavsky, the European-born and trained vocal director and organist at Boston’s Congregation Mishkan Tefila, the family’s synagogue.
Bernstein, who taught at Brandeis University from 1951 through 1956, launched the school’s Festival of Creative Arts in 1951 and served on the university’s Board of Trustees from 1976 to 81. He performed frequently in Israel, notably during the country’s founding years and during the 1967 Six-Day War. At age 70, Bernstein was named conductor laureate of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bernstein was also a prolific composer for Broadway, with the musical “West Side Story” his most famous Broadway show.
Photo: Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz
(Reuters) — The Berlin-born Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon left behind a body of watercolors and text she called “Life? or Theater?” before she was killed at Auschwitz in 1943 at age 26, carrying her unborn child.
Salomon’s life, which has inspired films, plays and a musical, was turned into an opera that plumbed the depths of human emotion in its premiere on Monday at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.
With music by French composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie, staging by Swiss director Luc Bondy and libretto by German-Jewish author Barbara Honigmann, who used 85 percent of Salomon’s own text, the work was the season’s most anticipated opera at the prestigious festival in the city of Mozart’s birth.
It did not disappoint.
Photo: Tom Pich
Soon after she assumed the makeshift stage during her July 16 performance at the Washington D.C. JCC, Flory Jagoda, 90, lit a candle. “Sephardic women always believed in light, in a candle,” she told the audience of about 125 people. “With these candles,” the Bosnian-born artist sang in Ladino, “We pray to God … to grant us a healthy life.”
A few songs later, however, an accidental thrust of the guitar sent the candle flying, and for a split second before it was clear whether a firefighting team would need to be summoned, the assembly’s collective heart skipped a beat. “Let’s just sing,” said Susan Gaeta, one of the two musicians accompanying Jagoda, defusing the mood.
The candle was encased in a glass box, so catastrophic danger probably wasn’t too likely. And Jagoda, for her part, has seen music do the exact opposite of destroy. “I did save myself with music,” she said, recounting her parents placing her alone on a train out of Croatia in 1941. “Don’t open your mouth,” her father had told her. “Just play your harmonica.” (Throughout the performance, Jagoda used the word “harmonica” to refer to an accordion.)
At 90, Jagoda appears to have a healthy sense of humor about her performances. In response to a false start on one song, where the trio wasn’t in the same key, she told the audience, “You know at my age, I don’t hear good.” Eying her colleague Howard Bass, she said, “He’s going to play beforehand, which is good, because it leaves me a good in.” Without batting an eye, Bass told her, “I’m just playing what you wrote!”
As Thomas Erdelyi, he was the Budapest-born son of Holocaust survivors who settled in Forest Hills, Queens.
But as Tommy Ramone, he became the leather-jacketed, rhythm-slashing backbone of The Ramones, arguably one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century.
Ramone, the last surviving original member of the band, died July 11 of bile duct cancer at his home in Ridgewood Queens. He was 65.
The Ramones first came together in 1974, at the height of California-rock flab and music-business excess.
Erdelyi, who had worked as a record producer beginning in his teens, was going to be the band’s manager and was helping audition drummers when the group was forming in 1974, according to the Washington Post.
When none of them could follow the Ramones’ style, he picked up the sticks himself, learned to play drums on the job, and became Tommy Ramone. He was also widely credited with creating the band’s signature look — leather jackets, huge mops of hair, and, for himself, omnipresent sunglasses.
Photo courtesy New York Mandolin orchestra
On June 1 the New York Mandolin Orchestra will celebrate its 90th anniversary at a concert in Manhattan. The repertoire ranges from a Vivaldi concerto to St. Louis Blues. Founded in 1924 by a Russian Jew named Samuel Firstman, the orchestra was initially affiliated with the Jewish communist newspaper Freiheit. For a time it performed both the national anthem and the socialist Internationale at its concerts.
“All these people had come from Europe and it was part of their culture. They believed in a larger culture,” says Bill Knapp, a concertina player who was a card-carrying member of the Wobblies and played with the orchestra for more than 30 years. “It was very important to them that they play this music, that they learn it, they pass it on.”
Among the New York Mandolin Orchestra’s alumnae are the bluegrass virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff, who was given his first mandolin by his aunt Sylvia Reuben who had played in a mandolin orchestra in Newark, New Jersey. Mitterhoff, who now performs with the acoustic music group Hot Tuna, joined the New York Mandolin Orchestra in 1976 and served as its concertmaster for 12 years. He’ll participate in the concert on Sunday.
“By the time I got involved in 1976, there were very few, quote, unquote younger players, which included anybody under 50,” Mitterhoff told the Forward. “Most of the members were senior citizens and some of them were couples. They all worked in factories and sweatshops.
(Haaretz) — The music of German composer Richard Wagner was never played in his parents’ home: Too many bad associations with Hitler and the Nazis, explains filmmaker Hilan Warshaw.
So it wasn’t until he began playing violin in a New York City youth orchestra that Warshaw was first introduced to the work of the notoriously anti-Semitic 19th-century German opera composer. And rather embarrassingly, he found himself smitten.
“I just loved the music. But, at the same time, it was something that my conscious mind told me was anathema,” he recalls.
Over the years, Warshaw – whose family lost many relatives during the Holocaust – developed what he describes as a “push-pull relationship” with Hitler’s favorite composer. And it made him curious about the other Jews in Wagner’s life.
So curious, in fact, that he decided to devote the past several years to making a film on the subject. The fruit of that effort, “Wagner’s Jews,” is playing in Tel Aviv at the Docaviv festival, Israel’s premier event for documentary film.
Produced, directed and written by Warshaw, the feature-length film focuses on the Jews who were some of Wagner’s closest associates, among them the gifted young pianist Carl Tausig, who was almost like a son to him; the conductor Hermann Levi, who happened to be the son of a rabbi; and the pianist Joseph Rubinstein, who lived in Wagner’s home for many years and killed himself when the composer died.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus
This past weekend saw the third installment of the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival at the Berlin Jewish Museum. The brainchild of Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova, the festival comprised over 40 musical pieces spread over six very full concert programs, featuring an enviable array of international musical talent, including many Israeli performers.
The festival, which ran this year from May 7 – 11, fills a gap in Berlin’s musical landscape. “Berlin, with all its multitude of musical events, doesn’t have a chamber music festival,” Bashkirova explained. “It has a lot of great concerts and everyone plays here, but there isn’t an actual festival. So, I think there was a great interest from the public. And now we’re doing it for the third time and I’m very happy.” Judging from the generous attendance for the three concerts I attended, it seems that the festival is indeed catering to a demand felt by this city’s musically inclined.
At first glance, the title is likely to confuse. The festival director explained the Berlin series’ connection to an older, more established musical event in Israel. “This festival is like the little brother of the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival,” Bashkirova said referring to the festival she founded in 1998 and is held every September in Jerusalem. “We are doing programs that are very similar to in Jerusalem and the people who play are mostly the same,” she explains.
When 31 students from Jewish Theological Seminary’s H.L. Miller Cantorial School and Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music perform together on May 4, the concert will be the first interdenominational collaboration of this sort that David Tilman can remember.
Years ago, there were “very significant” differences between the Conservative and Reform movements, but recent years have seen a narrowing gap, says Tilman, associate professor at the Miller Cantorial School and hazzan emeritus at Beth Sholom Congregation of Elkins Park, PA.
Both JTS and HUC teach musicianship; prayer modes (nusach) for the weekdays, Sabbath, festivals and High Holidays; biblical cantillation; and Jewish musical history, he says, and both schools require students to learn guitar, “recognizing the importance of this instrument as an effective teaching tool for children, teenagers, and adults.”
JTS and HUC share music faculty, such as Jacob Mendelson and Joyce Rosenzweig, who will co-conduct the concert with Tilman. Bruce Ruben, the director of HUC’s music school, is a JTS alumnus, and Henry Rosenblum, JTS’s former dean, teaches at HUC.
A friend of klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer recently stumbled on a mention of Behcet’s Syndrome, a medical disorder involving inflammation of the blood vessels. He joked that Krakauer seems to be suffering from Bechet’s Syndrome, an obsession with the American reeds player Sidney Bechet, who received great acclaim in the late 1940s. Krakauer has let it be known that he has idolized Bechet ever since he was 11, when his parents gave him one of the great clarinetist/saxophonist’s LPs, and has called Bechet the teacher he never met.
Krakauer covers Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” on his “The Big Picture” CD and the live show based on the album. Film buffs may know the tune from Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Krakauer’s wailing clarinet is heard on the track improvising over funk guitar lines. He told the Forward that it was a daunting task to cover a Bechet piece, though Krakauer paid tribute to Bechet in a rollocking 1997 composition titled “Klezmer Ala Bechet.”
We’re proud to debut the latest video for Krakauer’s Big Picture project here. Created by Matt Esolda, a video wiz at Manhattan’s Light of Day production company, it starts with an Oscar Wilde quote: “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” Esolda mixes grainy color footage of Paris from the early 1950s with more quotes about the City of Light from Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Enjoy.
“Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Piece of My Heart.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.”
The songs are recognized almost everywhere. But their Jewish creator, Bert Berns, has nearly vanished into obscurity.
That should change this year, with a book, documentary, and stage musical — all inspired by Berns and his music. April 15 sees the release of Joel Selvin’s “Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues” (Counterpoint); in June, the off-Broadway musical “Piece of My Heart” will open at the Pershing Square Signature Theater in Manhattan. And a documentary on Berns is slated for distribution this fall.
Other Brill Building songwriters may have had the glory, but few influenced pop music as much as Berns. He stewarded the early careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison, co-founded Bang Records with music-industry heavyweights Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and recorded with legends like the Isley Brothers, the Drifters, and Ben E. King. And none other than Sir Paul McCartney extolled Berns and his music in a recent video posted on Time.com.
The son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, Berns contracted rheumatic fever as a child, which ultimately caused his death from a heart defect in 1967. His son, Brett, and daughter, Cassandra, are now overseeing the multimedia celebration of their father and his work.
“This sanctuary is the most religiously diverse place in this great city,” said Michael Siegel, the rabbi of Anshe Emet, a Conservative synagogue in Chicago.
If that sounds like crowing, consider that conspicuous among the attendees of the synagogue’s April 6 “Sounds of Faith” concert were kippas, Greek Orthodox vestments, and headscarves.
The program, which packed the synagogue’s 1,100-capacity main sanctuary, featured Koranic recitations, Old Testament cantillation, and monastic chants. Musicians ranged from the choirs of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church and Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation to the Islamic Foundation Children’s Choir and Anshe Emet cantor [Alberto Mizrahi and Temple Sholom of Chicago (Reform) cantor Aviva Katzman.
“The greatest thing that happens at this concert is community building. There are divides and there are people who say ‘We should never get together,’ and ‘Oh my God! The Koran was being read on a Bima of a synagogue?!’” said Mizrahi in an interview. “Well they’re not used to hearing the ‘Sim Shalom’ of [Max] Janowski either.”
Over the past 200 years, the Modzitzer hasidim have become known for their beautiful melodies, or nigunim. Thousands of them, in fact. Today, 88 year-old Ben Zion Shenker is one of the most prolific, and respected, Modzitzer composers. For his latest album, “Hallel V’zimrah,” he teamed up with klezmer and bluegrass virtuoso Andy Statman. The Forward’s Jon Kalish caught up with Shenker in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn to talk about composing Jewish music, meeting the Modzitzer rebbe, and performing on Yiddish radio.
“We sing in Yiddish, we sing in Hebrew and sometimes we sing in Polish,” explains Zofia Radzikowska who joined the JCC choir in Cracow when it first opened two years ago.
At the beginning it was uncertain whether the choir would be able to attract enough members. Today the multigenerational ensemble is a lively proof of the small but vibrant local Jewish community.
Each singer has a slightly different reason to sing in this group: Some want to learn more about their Jewish roots whereas others recognize something in Jewish culture that was inextricably linked to Polish culture.
A big sign at the entrance of the local JCC trumpets: “Building A Jewish Future in Cracow.” That seems like a pretty bold undertaking if one considers the bigger historical picture of complicated Jewish-Polish relationships.
But choir member Paulina Skotnicka says the JCC is able to create a “non-judgmental place where nobody is maligned based on his or her background.” This welcoming approach inspires a lot of optimism.
Skotnicka sounds both down to earth and realistic when she says the choir is doing its small part to revive Jewish culture that was all but wiped out in the Holocaust.
“We can’t actually recover what is lost,” she says. “But we can certainly build something new.”
Boston-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, long a critical darling with a cult following, seems poised to cross over with the haunting “July,” (Sacred Bones) her sixth studio album in ten years. Reviews have been the strongest of her career; UK pop bible NME called “July” “a career high,” and the PopMatters blog dubbed it “one of 2014’s best albums so far… A triumph.” Pundits usually trip over themselves trying to describe Nadler’s dark, wry confessional folk; in just one review, music site Pitchfork name-checked Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval, German folkie Sibylle Baier — and Edgar Allan Poe.
Newly signed to high-profile music company Sacred Bones, Nadler is now a labelmate of indie royalty like David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Fleet Foxes, which makes the acid opening lines of “July” feel a bit ironic: “If you ain’t made it now / You’re never gonna make it.” The Forward caught up with the singer by email between gigs in New England to support her new album. “And I’m doing the driving as well!” she said.
Michael Kaminer: Journalists seem to grasp at descriptions for your music. If you had to introduce yourself and your music to our audience in a couple of sentences, how would it read?
At age 19, Graham Gouldman scored his first U.K. top-10 hit with “For Your Love,” the ageless tune first recorded by the Yardbirds. He went on to write smash songs for the likes of Herman’s Hermits, Jeff Beck, and the Hollies before forming the band 10cc — a hit factory in itself — in 1972.
This month, Gouldman added another distinction to a stellar resume. He’s one of four tunesmiths who’ll get inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame at a ceremony this June in New York. The Kinks’ Ray Davies, “Midnight Train to Georgia” writer Jim Weatherly, and Elvis Presley collaborator Mark James will also be honored.
Born in Manchester, England, Gouldman started playing guitar at age 11 after a cousin returned from Spain with a cheap acoustic guitar. “As soon as I held it, I was gone,” his bio says. Gouldman left school “as soon as was legally possible,” joining a band called the Whirlwinds. After a stint with another band, the Mockingbirds, music manager Harvey Lisberg hired him to write songs for one of the biggest acts to break out of Manchester — Herman’s Hermits.
These days, Gouldman continues to tour tirelessly with 10cc; in 2012, he released “Love and Work” (Rosala Records), a solo album. The Forward caught up with Gouldman by email.
Michael Kaminer: What does the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame honor mean to you?
This will definitely be composer Jason Robert Brown’s year.
A musical version of Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” (music, lyrics and orchestration by Jason Robert Brown) opens February 20 on Broadway.
“Honeymoon in Vegas” (music, lyrics, dance and vocal orchestration by Jason Robert Brown), which received rapturous reviews during its debut at the Paper Mill Theater in New Jersey, opens on Broadway in the fall.
The film version of his innovative off-Broadway play, “The Last Five Years” (book, music and lyrics by Jason…you get the picture) will be in theaters later this year.
All this on top of the Tony he won (best original music score) for “Parade,” about the Leo Frank trial and “13,” his Broadway follow-up, about a young bar mitzvah-age boy transplanted from New York to the Midwest after his parents divorce.
I first saw Jason perform almost 20 years ago at a small suburban theater not far from Monsey, NY, where he grew up. I wish I could say I purposely sought out the show. Actually, his show was — to my way of thinking — just thrown in as part of a subscription to the plays I really wanted to see. But it wasn’t very long before he blew away with a musical review, “Songs for a New World.”
After that I followed him almost everywhere, walking that fine line between sycophant and stalker. I saw “The Last Five Years,” the story of his first marriage. I sat across the aisle from him at a preview performance of “Parade.” (For the record, that was a coincidence.)
At “13,” the PR folks gave out CDs of the score with the press kit and I rushed to him to get it autographed. He told me I was the first.
Finally, at the Paper Mill, I saw him in the lobby, reminded him of our past and begged him for an interview. He said three magic words I’ll never forget: “See the publicist.”
Well it wasn’t “no.” So here we are, a few weeks before Madison County is slated to open, and Jason is on the phone.
Curt Schleier: When did you realize you’re a genius?
Our high school, the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto was, as its name indicated, a community school. Kids entered ninth grade from the spectrum of Jewish day schools — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Sephardic. But it was also a community school in a different way; we were a small group (graduating class of 110), and we looked out for one another. So when one of my classmates starred, in that first year of high school, as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in a local production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a bunch of went to see her. None of us knew her very well yet (nor each other), but we loved watching her. “She’s a born performer,” whispered one of my classmates.
That couldn’t have been a more prescient observation I thought earlier this month, watching Neshama Carlebach perform with Joshua Nelson, another star of the shul circuit, at the Jewish Center in Princeton, New Jersey, hundreds of miles and in a country apart from the one where I first saw her on a stage. Still sprinkled with fairy dust, Neshama belted out songs that give life to her “soulful” name, songs that left the crowd beatific. All around me, faces were lit up with rapture; people swayed and sang along; some broke into spontaneous dance. When I went to give my old classmate a hug after her performance, I had to fight off dozens of other admirers who wanted to give her a hug, not because they also knew her, but because they loved her without needing to know her.