Cellist Julian Schwarz and pianist Marika Bournaki presented an eye-opening survey of a fascinating and mostly neglected 20th-century musical movement at the Center for Jewish History on May 22. With contributions from violinist Avi Nagin and clarinetist Alec Manasse, the pair gave us a powerful representative sample of concert music from the New Jewish National School, and especially by cellist-composer Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982), with musicianship of the highest order.
Schwarz had talked to us about Stutschewsky in an exclusive interview a few days earlier. Further insights came from Dr. Neil W. Levin, who in a pre-concert lecture described the body of concert music by the Ukrainian-born composer and his cohorts not as “Jewish music” but as “music of Jewish experience” – after all, there’s nothing “Jewish” about a minor scale or a three-note snatch of melody.
It was a point worth keeping in mind as we heard well-known Jewish folk and liturgical melodies and even characteristic dance rhythms crop up again and again in pieces by Lazare Saminsky, Joel Engel, Paul Ben-Haim, Alexander Krein, and Leo Zeitlin as well as Stutschewsky, plus a newly commissioned work by contemporary Israeli composer Ofer Ben-Amots. Stutschewsky’s work shone brightest, with the most depth and originality. But the whole program was illuminating, and both the music itself and the superb performances made it a great pleasure.
Schwarz’s velvety, singing tone and Stutschewsky’s creative strength were both immediately on display in the folk-dance-influenced “Legend” at the top of the program. Gentle dissonances from the piano set the 20th-century scene as Schwarz showed brilliant dynamic control on the cello. Stutschewsky’s “Freylekhs: Improvisation” reworked Jewish folk songs into beautiful chamber music through the twin lenses, as I fancied I heard it, of Rachmaninoff and Gershwin.
Manasse joined the cellist and pianist for the same composer’s “Hasidic Fantasy,” the weightiest selection of the program’s first half. It opened with the clarinet playing the notes of a minor scale alone. The cello joined in subtly, then the piano with Chopinesque arpeggios supported them as they muscled through the impassioned melodies. The clarinet’s soft clarity merged perfectly with the cello’s rich deep tone as the piece wended through multiple moods leaving an impression of great worldliness – sadness, but also acceptance of life’s troubles, with even the speedy dance passages tinged with reflection.
In Saminsky’s irresistible “Hasidic Suite,” cello and piano drove passionately through the first movement’s unexpected rubatos, the second’s languid stream-of-consciousness, and the “Hamavdil” finale with its sparkling piano atmospherics. Nagin’s violin helped make Engel’s “Freylekhs, Op. 21” flowery and engaging.
Stutschewsky provided the most substantial work of the concert’s second half, too, with “Klezmer’s Wedding Music” for violin, cello, and piano. (Originally “klezmer” was a noun denoting a musician belonging to the musician’s guild, not a style of music.) A decisive melody from the cello wakes the piece up after a rather mournful beginning; then the violin joins in with lively snatches as the music threatens fitfully to break into a dance and finally does. The musicians gave full voice to the composer’s almost Brahmsian mastery of the melding of instrumental voices in this piece.
Another, more compact highlight was Paul Ben-Haim’s “Music for Solo Cello.” Schwarz’s sound was so resonant, you could hear every hammer-on of finger to string and every subtle gradation of dynamics. The brief second movement was unlike anything else on the program, showing off the cellist’s staccato technique.
The hora of contemporary composer Ofer Ben-Amots’s “Nigun and Hora,” while rhythmically recognizable as the iconic Jewish dance, rang with modernist motifs and unexpected accents. And with limpid sweetness the violin trio brought out the romantic melodies, close harmonies, and intriguing hints of 12-tone composition in Krein’s “Elegy Op. 16.”
So was this “Jewish music”? I agree with Dr. Levin that we should resist the temptation to assign ethnic or national identity to common, even if not universal, musical gestures. And “Jewish music” is by no means a sufficient description of the pieces on this rich program; they are much more than a mere product of the Jewishness of their composers and the traditional Jewish themes woven into them. Finally, you surely don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate and enjoy them.
On the other hand, it doesn’t feel wrong to me to describe them as “Jewish,” with the proviso that they are not only that. On a gut level, I left the concert feeling I had experienced art that was fundamentally Jewish, in some not-thoroughly-definable way.
Levin and I can surely agree that we’re fortunate these composers have found worthy champions, and it would be a real shanda if Schwarz and Bouraki didn’t return to the pieces at future concerts and one day record them. Some of them had not been heard anywhere in decades, but more of the world should know Stutschewsky and his musical kin.