By Philippa Kiraly
One of the pleasures of Music of Remembrance concerts is the spoken (and written) historical context provided by founding director Mina Miller.
On Monday, the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass when the nazis rampaged throughout Germany, destroying Jewish property wholesale, Music of Remembrance focused on the rich heritage of Jewish folklore, including music inspired by folksong and theater.
S. Ansky’s famous play written on an aspect of Yiddish folk culture, “The Dybbuk,” premiered in Moscow’s Habima Theater 1922 and went on to travel across the world (this writer saw it in New York in 1962). The music composed for it by Joel Engel has been much less heard.
Miller brought Engel’s suite of that music back for this concert, and commissioned choreographer Donald Byrd to create a dance to illustrate the story, and this was the focal point of the concert.
Three chamber works preceded it, all Russian. Aleksander Krein’s “Hebrew Sketches” (1910) uses a string quartet with a clarinet to evoke the typical sounds of the Jewish day, with klezmer and chant woven in using the Eastern scale which may be minor but is often cheerful. It would be worth hearing more of Krein’s work, which was played here with spirit by clarinetist Laura DeLuca, violinists Mikhail Shmidt and Leonid Keylin, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi and cellist Mara Finkelstein.
After the news of the nazi death camps reached Russia, Mikhail Gnessin wrote a one-movement Piano Trio, Op, 63, in 1943, and dedicated it to “The Memory of our Lost Children.” Played by Shmidt, Finkelstein, and Craig Sheppard at the piano, the performance sounded driven, heavy, and often messy, particularly the piano part. There were rich, expressive moments with the ever present sadness inherent in this music, but too few of them.
Shostakovich, not a Jew himself, wrote the song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry” in 1948. It has eleven songs, the first eight of which are painful descriptions of life’s hardships in the shtetls, and the last three a sudden change of pace to glorifying life on the Sovient Union’s collective farms. Presumable Shostakovich had been gotten at by the powers that be at an anti-Jewish time, but it didn’t do much good. The work was not premiered for another seven years.
Soprano Megan Hart, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld, and tenor Ross Hauck did the honors, with Miller at the keyboard. The third song stood out, an anguished lullaby full of tears sung by Weld, as did the sixth, a moving song of rejection, with Weld and Hauck. In the eighth, “Winter” the howling wind and stark deprivation came through clearly in the voices of all three singers, though Hart tended, as all through the cycle, to sing too loudly.
Finally came “The Dybbuk.” The string quartet, augmented by DeLuca, bass Jonathan Green and percussion Matthew Kocmieroski, sat side stage with standlamps. Byrd chose to focus on the two main protagonists of the play, the lover who died and became a spirit, a dybbuk, who inhabited and controlled the living girl he was to marry and who is about to marry someone else.
Byrd has created a gem of a work. On the very small stage in the intimate environs of Nordstrom Recital Hall, dancers Joel Myers and Kylie Lewallen gave a remarkable evocation of the possessing of another soul, the unbridgeable gap between the dybbuk and the girl, one dead, one living, despite his control of her, and finally their coming together when she dies. Every movement led out of the one before, wild and fluid, tender, expressive, submissive and lost.
There was nothing wasted among the strong and imaginative moves. Each one spoke to the tale, and the fabric of the girl’s dress, heavy, slippy stuff, off white, added to the impression.
Prior to the dance, the two violinists performed a few selections from music written early on for the play by David Beigelman, something which could have been heard in the shtetl streets, and indeed one could see Shmidt and Keylin doing just that.