Pro Musica Hebraica puts on concerts of Jewish classical music. They only put on a couple of concerts a year and I go to them when I can since I think it's good for this music to be heard. The concert this time was A Yiddish Winterreise: Elegy for a Vanished World performed by bass-baritone Mark Glanville with Alexander Knapp on piano. The title suggested it would be schmaltzy and it is partially based on Schubert's Winterreise, which is okay but not something I would go out of my way for. So I went largely out of a feeling of obligation.
Boy was I wrong! The connection to Schubert is largely conceptual, though this song cycle does include a translation into Yiddish of "Der Lindenbaum." (It became "Die Lipe" in the Yiddish version. I am not sure why lime trees are more Jewish than lindens are.) Other songs are either traditional or familiar (or unfamiliar) Yiddish songs, including a few that are more or less obligatory in any presentation of Yiddish music ("Oyfn Pripitshik," "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen," "Tumbalalayke," etc.). By the way, I will use the transliterations from the concert program, even though I'm not crazy about them.
In the Schubert song cycle, a rejected lover is reflecting on his loss. Glanville's song cycle turns this to a Holocaust survivor looking back at his lost world. His character is a badkhn, a wedding entertainer, who starts out singing a traditional song for the bridegroom. Then he moves right into the heart of what this is about with "S'brent (It's burning)." This is a very powerful piece about the destruction of a shtetl, lamenting the people standing by with arms folded instead of putting out the fire with their own blood. (There were supertitles, so one need not know Yiddish to follow the meaning.) That's an incredible image and Glanville's performance was emotional but controlled, exactly what one needs to handle the impact.
I won't write about every song in the cycle, but I will mention a few. Given my family background, some of the ones which struck me personally had to do with Lithuania. "Vilne (Vilna)" is a nostalgic piece about longing for that city, a place of spirit and Jewish learning. "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds)" is a familiar song - except for the second verse, in which the shammes of the Slobodka Yeshiva writes a testament urging those who manage to become free to tell their children about their pain and suffering and the murders at the Ninth Fort. This is an admonition my father partially fulfilled and I had to fight back tears thinking about it. (Slobodka was across the river from Kovno and was the summer home of my great-grandfather. It later became the site of the Kovno Ghetto. The Yeshiva in the song could very well have been associated with the shul where my father became a bar mitzvah. And my grandmother and at least one of my father's sisters were killed at the Ninth Fort.)
Not all of the songs were sad. There were pieces like "Der rebe hot geheysen freylekh zayn (The Rabbi has told us to be merry)" with lyrics about the rabbi telling people to drink and celebrate and "Hot a yid a vaybele (A Jew has a Wife)" in which the wife cooks a kugel from Monday to Friday but forgets to serve it on Shabbos. The earworm I was left with was "Az der rebe Elimelekh (when Rabbi Elimelech)," a song I have always liked.
Still, the overall mood was mournful, with at least a touch of anger. One of the strongest pieces was "Un a yigele vet zey firn (And a child will lead them)" with words by H. Levick interspersing quotes from the book of Isaiah with a mother mourning her burnt child. Again, Glanville's performance exactly captured the mood and enhanced the meaning of the words. That emotional mastery contnued to the end, closing with the Mourner's Kaddish.
All in all, this is a remarkable work of music and I was very glad I went to the concert. In fact, I was so impressed that I bought the CD. Glanville and Knapp will be performing the piece at Symphony Space in New York on February 16th and at the Chicago Cultural Center on February 20th. It's well worth seeing if you can.