The Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica Present: An Evening of Jewish Music and Poetry: Evgeny Kissin at The Kennedy Center by Bev Fleisher

Pro Musica Hebraica ended its seventh season in the packed Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a moving evening of music and poetry, both rendered exquisite by pianist and lover of Yiddish poetry, Evgeny Kissin. Of note is the collaboration with The Kennedy Center with this presentation in the packed Concert. Kissin did not “perform” or “recite” — each note and word seemed to come directly from his soul. There was not a page-turner or cheat sheet in sight.

Evgeny Kissin. Photo by F. Broede.
Evgeny Kissin. Photo by F. Broede.

The pieces selected by Kissin were drawn from the Jewish cultural renaissance in eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century prior to the institution of Stalin’s pogroms. Pro Musica Hebraica has, as one of its goals, the presentation of works seldom heard, especially in the United States. In fact, except for the ‘Piano Sonata, Op. 40” by Ernest Bloch, none of the evening’s four piano pieces had ever been given in concert performance in the United States and rarely anywhere since 1935.

What brought the audience to life, however, were Kissim’s heart-rendering presentation of Yiddish poems by two well-known masters, Haim Bialik and Isaac Perez. Surtitles were provided for those who don’t speak Yiddish; for many, they were not necessary. The tone of each stanza reflected the meaning of the words. His presentation of the poetry in Yiddish was particularly poignant for me, bringing back memories of my oldest Russian-born aunt reciting her favorite Yiddish poems and stories to my generation and the rapid-fire Yiddish jokes and arguments over recipes exchanged by my mother and her five older sisters. Kissim’s encore was not music, but another set of Yiddish poems.

Kissim’s piano performances were masterful interpretations of these seldom-heard pieces. The audience paid close attention since the particular pieces, if not the entire genre, was new to them. Each of the four composers, Moses Milner, Ernest Bloch, Alexander Veprik, and Alexander Krein chose to incorporate their Jewish heritage into their compositions in a different way.

Kissin started the program with a short piece by Milner, “Farn opsheyd.”  According to the program notes, Milner felt that too many so-called Jewish songs simply pasted Yiddish lyrics on top of Polish and Ukranian melodies. Instead of following this pattern, Milner chose to focus on distilling larger Jewish styles of intonation and expressive ornamentation that gave Jewish music distinct from other music of the time. He also sought to render the subtle vocal inflections of the Yiddish language in musical form. The audience’s rapt attention appeared to reflect a combination of unfamiliarity with the composition with warm recognition of the style of composition used by Milner.

The “Piano Sonata, Op. 40,” by Ernest Bloch, one of the most well-known composers from this school, was magical. Bloch insisted on eschewing folklore as the basis for his Jewish compositions rather claiming inspiration from his internal Jewish voice, “a voice which seemed to come from far beyond myself, far beyond my parents — a voice which surged up in me on reading certain passages in the Bible.”

“Sonata No. 2,” by Alexander Veprik showed blending of modernist techniques with Jewish intonational elements. The sonata used the one-movement form Veprik preferred. Kissim was true to the composition, aggressively driving the piece forward with a percussive rhythmic pattern graced with a repeated-note motif.

The concert closed with a glorious piece by Alexander Krein. His “Suite dansée, Op. 44incorporated the lyrical melodies and distinctive modes of Hebrew liturgical chant and the klezmer music, which he was raised on, with a European modernism sensibility. This suite, comprised of five movements, felt the most “Jewish” of all of the piano compositions and was a fitting follow-up to Yiddish poetry by I.L. Peretz. Krein is perhaps most well known for his composition, “Kaddish, which is performed regularly in concert halls and on certain occasions in the Jewish life cycle.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Evgeny Kissin: An Evening of Jewish Music and Poetry played for one night only on Monday, February 24, 2014 at The Concert Hall at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts -2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For future events, check The Kennedy Center performance calendar.


Here are the Yiddish Poems recited by Evgeny Kissin.

Evgeny Kissin’s website.

Pro Musica Hebraica’s website.


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