Thursday , November 30 2023
Cellist Julian Schwarz

Exclusive Interview: Cellist Julian Schwarz on Joachim Stutschewsky and 20th-Century Jewish Music

Julian Schwarz is an award-winning cellist, an active soloist and chamber musician and a champion of new and unheralded music. Together with pianist Marika Bournaki, violinist Avi Nagin, and clarinetist Alec Manasse, he will present on Tuesday May 22 a concert sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, part of its Sidney Krum Young Artists Concert Series series and co-sponsored by American Society for Jewish Music. The program features compositions by Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982) and other 20th-century Jewish composers, much of whose music is today obscure, along with a new work written for the occasion by Israeli composer Ofer Ben-Amots. Neil W. Levin, YIVO’s Anne E. Leibowitz Visiting Professor-in-Residence in Music, will give a pre-concert lecture on the life, work, and artistic milieu of Stutschewsky, a composer whose influences ranged from Schoenberg to klezmer.

Julian Schwarz spoke with us about his approach to playing Stutschewsky and other 20th-century music, the preparation for this unique concert program, and his interest in “music of Jewish connection.”

When I saw you perform at Bargemusic with Marika Bournaki in 2016, you played Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann. When you play 20th-century music, and specifically the music of Joachim Stutschewsky, do you have to take a different approach in some ways? Are there questions of structure, technique, overall musical sensibility?

There are so many musical and technical facets to performing music in a stylistically appropriate manner. I am always in a state of conflict: Do I perform a piece how I feel it sounds best, or do I perform it trying to adhere to certain stylistic rules?

My answer always varies, yet one thing remains the same: Music should feel natural.

This is much harder than it sounds. Whether playing the Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann you mention, or Stutschewsky, Ben-Haim, Engel, and Saminsky, my approach is to make it sound like it is the most natural occurring phenomenon in the world. All great music should be interpreted to convey a sense of ease and natural flow, like the performance was “meant to be.”

This approach has a lot to do with my general style. I like to think of myself as a singer, not a cellist. This causes me to think less about the instrument’s technical demands, and more about how I would play a certain phrase in spite of the instrument. Sometimes this means using much more difficult fingerings or bowings to achieve certain sounds that sound natural but may in fact not be natural at all to produce.

In my exploration of Stutschewsky’s music, I am very much at home. Stutschewsky was a cellist and wrote many works for cello that fit very well within traditional cello technique. This makes the cello writing idiomatic. Stutschewsky also uses Jewish folk elements (many of which I am familiar with), and cantorial influences. As a very emotional player, and a Jew, singing in a cantorial manner through my cello comes very naturally to me. It is a joy.

How did Stutschewsky come to your attention, and what drove you to prepare and perform his music? Have you performed it before?

Stutschewsky came to my attention through the foremost scholar on Jewish music, and my close personal friend, Neil W. Levin. Neil has known me since I was a child, when he and my father [conductor Gerard Schwarz] worked together on recordings for the Milken Archive of Jewish Music. Neil is one of the smartest people I know. I have learned so much from him over the years, especially on “music of Jewish connection” (his own term) and U.S. history. Neil has always encouraged me to discover and champion “music of Jewish connection.”

With the rise of worldwide anti-Semitism, it has been difficult for me to program Jewish works. I remember a certain recital when I was asked to remove a suite of pieces by Ernest Bloch for fear of audience distaste. I played the work as an encore!

That said, Neil’s recent appointment as a distinguished professor at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has been vital to my continuous learning on topics related to Jewish music and Jewish life. I remember attending Neil’s lectures at YIVO as an auditor, along with the brilliant composer and head of music at YIVO, Alex Weiser. Alex, a brilliant composer and genuine artistic leader of the highest order, has included me and my fiancée Marika Bournaki in multiple projects, including an evening of works by Lazare Saminsky at Temple Emanu-El, and an evening of Yiddish art and theater song at YIVO’s wonderful performance hall at the Center for Jewish History on 16th St. in New York City.

Alex’s commitment to this project has be unwavering, and our mutual respect for Neil’s scholarship a binding force. Neil’s idea of a cello recital dedicated to the works of Joachim Stutschewsky and his circle appealed to me on many levels. First that Stutschewsky was a cellist himself (his works for cello numbering more than those for any other instrument); second that my research on Stutschewsky would open my knowledge to other composers of the New Jewish School [the early-20th-century movement to create a body of national Jewish art music]; and third that I could champion works of Israeli composers when so many performers are afraid to do so.

Stutschewsky is known for championing both the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Jewish folk music, which we wouldn’t normally think of in the same context. How do his cross-cultural interests come through in his own compositions?

Joachim Stutschewsky
Joachim Stutschewsky

Stutschewsky was the cellist of the Kolisch Quartet from 1924-1927. The quartet was famous for its association with the music of Arnold Schoenberg.

Though Stutschewsky had a relationship with Schoenberg and championed his works, there is little to no influence of Schoenberg in Stutschewsky’s own compositions. I can relate to this: [though I am] a big fan of Schoenberg’s music (especially the 4th String Quartet after studying it with Jonathan Dawe at Juilliard), I do not find my voice in it. Stutschewsky’s voice is much more heavily rooted in the 19th century Germanic tradition, with special attention paid to Jewish folk music, Hassidic dances, and Klezmer styles.

What other composers are on the program? And were they new to you? And please tell us a little about the new composition by Ofer Ben-Amots that YIVO commissioned for this concert.

In my early discussions with Neil, it became clear that a complete recital of Stutschewsky’s music for cello and piano would be myopic. The goal became a recital that would engage further thought as to the various influences and styles of composers like Stutschewsky.

My research into various other Israeli composers, with guidance from Neil and Alex, revealed a wealth of music I had neither heard before nor knew of. The music of Israeli composers has been unfairly neglected, to be sure. The hardest part of the preparation for this recital was narrowing down the great wealth of wonderful music written by Stutschewsky and his contemporaries.

Apart from Lazare Saminsky (1882-1959), I knew not one of the other composers on this program: Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982), Joel Engel (1868-1927), Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), Alexander Krein (1883-1951), and Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930). There are many more composers I discovered, but I had to narrow it down to a coherent aesthetic, and to a reasonable length!

While I wrestled with the programming for the concert, Neil and Alex asked the prominent Israeli composer Ofer Ben-Amots to write a new work for the occasion. It was a wonderful idea, to link the composers of Stutschewsky’s circle to a well-known composer of modern Israel. I adore Ofer’s music and was so touched he agreed to write a piece for me and Marika to premiere on the concert. Ofer’s piece “Nigun and Hora” is the perfect match for the program, balancing two pillars of Jewish culture: the pleading nature of Nigun (for ex. Krein’s “Elegy,” Zeitlin’s “Eli Zion,” and Stutschewsky’s “Shir Jehudi”) and the celebratory nature of dance (for ex. Saminsky’s “Hassidic Dance,” and Stutschewsky’s “Jolly Dance” and “Klezmer Wedding Music”).

Will you be performing this program elsewhere? What else is coming up for you on the concert tour, or in the recording studio?

Unfortunately, this program is a one-night-only event, but I am so proud of what it represents. Neil’s extensive notes on the program are brilliant and insightful, Alex’s imagination and extensive research inspiring, and Ofer’s new piece a future staple of the repertoire. To enhance the evening, I have invited two of my most esteemed colleagues and collaborators, violinist Avi Nagin and clarinetist Alec Manasse, to perform with me and Marika in the concert. Adding trios made for a more beautiful and interesting program.

As far as my other performances, I am speaking with you from Jacksonville, FL, where I am performing the Cello Concerto by Lowell Liebermann with the Jacksonville Symphony this week. Lowell is a personal friend and wrote a gorgeous concerto for me this year. These are the culminating performances of my season with this work, performances number 7, 8, and 9. Though Lowell does not identify himself as a Jewish composer, there are definitely Jewish elements in the piece, regardless of intention!

After the recital at YIVO, I will give performances at Bargemusic May 26 and 27 with Misha Dichter and Mark Peskanov. The program is 3 Duos for Violin and Cello by my father (world premieres), and the Schubert B-flat Trio. On June 5th Marika Bournaki, Kristin Lee, and I will perform an evening of Piano Trios at the National Arts Club. My 18-19 season gets underway with performances of the Shostakovich 1st Concerto with the Lake Forest Symphony in Illinois September 8 and 9. My website will show all upcoming performances as they are announced.

For tickets and information on Tuesday’s concert please visit the YIVO Institute website.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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