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31 March 2016 @ 04:32 pm
Wandering Stars: Two Centuries of European Jewish Song  
About 5 years ago, I wrote an entry about Mark Glanville’s outstanding Pro Musica Hebraica concert. So I was excited to see that he would be back here for the Spring 2016 concert, along with two other singers, Mathias Haussmann and Anthony Russell, and pianist Alan Mason. Fortunately, my schedule worked and I was off to the Kennedy Center Monday night to hear this.

The bad news came in an announcement by Charles Krauthammer at the beginning of the evening. (Yes, that Charles Krauthammer. I may disagree with most of his politics, but he and his wife, Robin, have created an excellent and important music series.) Namely, the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center is closing for renovations for a couple of years, so there won’t be Pro Musica Hebraica events there. Though I gathered that there will be some, less frequent concerts, possibly at the Concert Hall. Aside from infrequency, that’s bad news because the Concert Hall’s acoustics are a lot worse than the Terrace Theatre’s.

Anyway, the concert was titled Wandering Stars: Two Centuries of European Jewish Song. Part 1 covered 19th century European songs, while Part 2, which had to do with 20th century music, focused on "exile and remembrance." I’m not crazy about associating exile with Europe, but that’s another subject for another time.

So, music. Glanville kicked off Part 1 with three songs by Salomon Sulzer. The songs were fine, though a bit more along the lines of German romanticism than I’d prefer. A bigger issue is that they were short, and I felt a little bit cheated in that respect. Glanville did a good job, but I think he’s a stronger performer with other material.

Russell was a revelation. His rich bass is perfectly suited to the Yiddish art songs he performed, which included a piece by Sidor Belarsky, as well as Belarsky’s arrangements of other composer’s songs. Russell has made a specialty of Belarsky’s music and that’s really quite a musical bashert. (Before someone asks, that’s a Yiddish word that means "destiny" and is usually used in relationship to marriage.) I particularly liked his performance of Israel Alter’s "Akhris Hayomim."

Then came Hausmann’s turn. He started with two pieces by Alexander Zemlinksy, both of which dealt with war. Again, they felt very Germanic to me, though the liveliness of "Mit Trommeln und Pfeifen," which is essentially a soldier’s marching song, did break up some of the air of lamentation. But to make sure that the audience could stay at least a little bit in despair, he moved on to Mahler’s "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," i.e. "I am lost to the world." If you ever want to wallow in alienation, you just have to pull out the Mahler.

The first half closed out with all three singers performing another Salomon Sulzer song, "Wanderlust Israelitischer Handwerker." This was a livelier, somewhat lighter piece, urging traveling craftsmen to be cheerful and trust in G-d’s protection. It was a good way to end the set.

The music in Part 2 was much more to my taste. Glanville started with two pieces by Alexander Oshanetsky. "Oy, vos ken you makh, s’iz Amerike" is a humorous piece detailing the differences (primarily in sexual mores) between Europe and America. Glanville clearly enjoyed singing it and the audience roared with laughter. The other piece, "Vilna, Vilna," was full of longing and memory for that city. When I saw that the next piece was "Es brent" (“It is burning”) by Mordechai Gebirtig, I turned to the friend sitting next to me and whispered that it’s a remarkable song. And, hearing it live again, it remains as powerful as ever, with the horrifying image of people standing with their hands folded, watching the shtetl burn instead of using their own blood to staunch the flames. By the way, the program notes say the event in question was a 1936 pogrom in Przytyk, so it is not technically a Holocaust song. Avrom Brudno’s "Unter dayne vayse shtern," which closed out Glanville’s set, is, however, and it reflects an anguished longing for G-d and the despair. Glanville has the emotional control to perform material like this without overdoing it and that is why I am such a big fan of his.

Next up, Hausmann performed a suite of songs by Hanns Eisler. They were somewhat too modernist for me and, frankly, I didn’t really know what to make of them. That was followed by Erich Zeisl’s "Die Nacht bricht an," another piece I found too modernistic. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s "I wish you bliss" was more to my taste. None of my dissatisfaction reflects on Hausmann’s musicality. He sang just fine, but was singing pieces that, for the most part, I didn’t much care for.

The highlight of the concert was Anthony Russell’s final set, again of pieces primarily arranged by Sidor Belarsky, but by various scomposers. Shmuel Polonsky’s "Mayn yungt" and Zelig Bardichever’s "Bessarabi” were straightforward songs of longing and memory. "Viglid" by Leyb Yampolsky followed and is literally a lullaby, but the lyrics reflect the inability to provide the good life a parent wants for a child. Russell’s resonant voice was simultaneously soothing and sad. He closed the set even more powerfully with the combination of two traditional songs – the African American piece "My Soul is Anchored in the Lord" and the Jewish prayer "Va’ani Tefilati," which is one of the most beautiful parts of the High Holiday liturgy. This was jaw-droppingly beautiful. In short, Russell (who is an African-American Jew by choice, by the way) conveyed such sheer spiritual power that I can’t imagine any audience member was unmoved. Yasher koach!

There was an encore with all three singers, but, since it wasn’t in the program and I didn’t take notes, I won’t trust my memory on it. I know it was a Schubert piece on a Hebrew text and that Glavine dedicated it to the memory of his recently-deceased mother, but I don’t have more to say than that.


Anyway, all in all it was a very good concert. I did buy Glanville’s second CD and, if Russell had had any CDs there, I would have bought them. I do highly recommend checking him out on Youtube (and, of course, in person if you have the opportunity) because he has a truly remarkable voice.
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