Review: The Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica Present ‘Wandering Stars: Two Centuries of European Jewish Song’

I left The Kennedy Center Terrace Theater last night walking about in that peaceful sort of glow one gets after an experience of great beauty; a kind of encounter that seems to refocus the world in front of one’s eyes, till it seems opaquely luminous with inner light; the kind that more than a little suggests that though life’s lived in vanishing moments, something about the whole thing must endure. In other words, I had a good time. The music was awfully good. The program was Wandering Stars: Two Centuries of European Jewish Song, put on by Pro Musica Hebraica, an organization with a mission, since its founding in 2008, to bring the rich legacy of Jewish art music out of obscurity and into the concert hall.

Mark Glanville, Mathias Hausmann, and Anthony Russell with Alan Mason in 'Wandering Stars: Three Generations of European Jewish Song.'
Anthony Russell, Mark Glanville, Mathias Hausmann, with Alan Mason in ‘Wandering Stars: Three Generations of European Jewish Song.’

Wandering Stars has done just that. I couldn’t sum up the contents and aim of the concert any better than the opening paragraph of the greeting in program booklet, so I want to quote that full:

“From Kol Nidre to Hatikvah, Jews have sung their way through modern history. Yet remarkably, most of the Jewish vocal repertoire is still unknown to the concert world today. Treasures of the Yiddish theater are consigned to the realm of ethnic nostalgia. Glowing secular art songs by Europe’s greatest cantors remain locked away in dusty archives. Even the haunting Holocaust era lieder of exile and loss remain obscure to all but the devotees of German art song. Tonight we take a small step forward to rectify that injustice by a program that features two languages, three voices, and a dozen of the world’s greatest Jewish vocal gems.”

The three voices – all deep, expressive, and rich — were those of Mark Glanville, Mathias Hauseman, and Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell. Glanville brought to his performance dramatic flair and a virtuosic humor, Hausmann a focused intensity. Russell’s voice – to my ears – was perhaps the most beautiful I have heard in person. The singers were subtle and nuanced in their inflections, powerful but never showy in their emotional intensity.

The acoustics at The Kennedy Center are amazing and quite ideal for this sort of performance. The pianist for all the songs was Dr. Alan Mason, listed in the program as one of the country’s leading accompanists for singers of Jewish music. It easy to see why – his playing was warm, soft, lyrical, perfect for the music; its expressive virtues mirrored and complemented those of the singers.

The choices for the program were selected and arranged with great economy so as tell the story of the Jewish art music associated with central European lieder tradition, from its great commencement with Schubert in the nineteenth century to its passing, along with that of the cultural world that beget it, in and after World War II. We see the Jewish forms of the genre alike in their internal development and in their relations to the wider culture.

The first half the program put us in nineteenth century Vienna, beginning with the work of Salomon Sulzer. Sulzer, a composer and singer best known as the father of modern cantorial music, lived and worked in Vienna contemporaneously with Schubert and Schumann, who both highly prized his singing. Less well-known is Sulzer’s secular lieder, three of which were on display in “Wandering Stars,” sung by Glanville, among them “Anliegen,” a musical setting of a Goethe poem, and “Orientalischer Liebesgrusse,” a setting for German and Hebrew of part of the Song of Songs.

Glanville’s Sulzer was followed by Russell singing three Yiddish songs, traditional both in theme and melody, in arrangements by singer/cantors N.I. Zaslavsky and Sidor Belarsky. Russell has a particular devotion to Belarsky, an opera singer who became a true master of Jewish song in its folk and liturgical forms, an arranger of great skill whom the program notes cite as “the greatest twentieth-century exponent of Yiddish art song.” Russell has studied and perfected Belarsky’s style and most of his selections in either half of the concert were attributed to Belarsky adaptions.

My favorite of these first three was “Der Gemore Nign,” a soulful tune addressed to a young Yeshiva student, far from home and weeping at the separation from his family. In the following song, “Akhris HaYamomim” learns with wonder traditional teachings about end of days, when social justice is supposed to prevail in the world.

Hausmann followed with a trio of songs (two by Zelimsky, one by Mahler) returning us to secular Vienna, this time at fin-de-siècle and with a dark sense of foreboding. Zelimsky’s two songs dealt with the costs and stupidity of militarism and war, “Mitt Trommeln und Pfeiffen” cynically rousing, “Todd in Ähren” a slow haunting song about a soldier dead in a field and remembering his village. Mahler’s well-known “Ich Bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen” was equally haunting. As a pick me up, the first half ended with all three singers joining together in a Sulzer song about embracing the modern world, “Wanderlied Israelitischer Handwerker.”

The second half opened up with Granville on a upbeat note that garnered many smiles and laughs, with a Yiddish musical theater song by Alexander Olshanetsky called  “Oy, vos ken you makh, s’iz Amerike,” about differences between the New World and the Old. This was followed, however, by the plaintive “Vilne, Vilne,” another Olshanetsky song, an elegy for a city the singer has left behind, a place known as a center of Jewish life, scholarship, and poetry, although the singer misses above all its natural beauties.

Next Hausmann came back on stage to sing a number of songs by highly regarded mid-century composers, of which I will call out above all a suite of songs by Hanns Eisler, a student of Schoenberg and subsequently a frequent collaborator with Brecht, whose words form the lyrics of most of these selections. They are songs of weariness, anger, exile, sadness, in which a mix of cabaret, dissonance, and irony reflect the harsh twentieth-century realities yet also, somehow, blend perfectly with the rest of the program, for which they seem a perfect fit.

Russell wrapped up the second half with what were my favorite pieces of the evening, all but one Belarsky arrangements of Yiddish poems previously set to music. “Bessarabia” with a lyric by Itzik Manger, was notable for its tone of lament and its Gypsy inflections; “Viglid,” a Holocaust inspired lullaby, provided the most haunting, and to my mind the prettiest, melody of the night.

The last song “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord/Va’ani Tefilati (Psalm 69)” was credited to “Traditional,” and interwove the words and melody of an African America spiritual with a cantorial melody and Hebrew words taken from Psalm 69. This was quite an arrangement, and a powerful performance.

That’s a lot, but there as an encore, too, one that tied both ends of the show together – the musical setting of a Psalm, in Hebrew, composed by Franz Schubert for use by Sulzer in his liturgical work. Was piece was performed in a new arrangement so that it could be sung together in trio by Glanville, Russell, and Hausmann.

I have to really commend Pro Musica Hebraica – they really accomplished what they set out to do, to exhibit the variety, seriousness, and artistic merits of the Jewish art song of the past two centuries. My only regret is that it was a one-time performance – I would want more people to be able to go — but it’s one I’m very happy I got to see.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Wandering Stars: Two Centuries of European Jewish Song played for one night only on Monday, March 28, 2016 at The Terrace 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.


Part 1: Nineteenth-Century Songs of Jewish Europe (45 min.)

Mark Glanville with Alan Mason
Orientalischer Liebegruss (S. Sulzer)
Anliegen (S. Sulzer)
Die Briefe (S. Sulzer)

Anthony Russell with Alan Mason
May ko mameloshn (trad., arr. N.L. Zaslavsky)
Der Gemore nign (S. Belarsky)
Akhris Hayomim (I. Alter, arr. S. Belarsky)

Mathias Hausmann with Alan Mason
Tod in Ähren * (Zemlinsky)
Mit Trommeln und Pfeifen* (Zemlinsky)
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (Mahler)

Mark Glanville, Mathias Hausmann, and Anthony Russell with Alan Mason,
Wanderlied Israelitische Handwerker (S. Sulzer)


Part 2: Twentieth-Century Songs of Exile and Remembrance (45 min.)

Mark Glanville, Mathias Hausmann, and Anthony Russell with Alan Mason
Oy, vos ken you makh, s’iz Amerike (A. Lebedev/A. Olshanetsky)
Vilna, Vilna (A. Olshanetsky)
S’brent (M. Gebirtig)
Unter dayne vayse shtern (A. Budno)

Mathias Hausmann with Alan Mason
Hotelzimmer 1942 (H. Eisler)
An den kleinen Radioapparat (H. Eisler)
Auf der Flucht (H. Eisler)
Über den Selbstmord (H. Eisler)
Verfehlte Liebe (H. Eisler)
L’automne californien (H. Eisler)
Die Nacht bricht an (E. Zeisl)
I wish you bliss (E. W. Korngold)

Anthony Russell with Alan Mason
Mayn yugnt (S. Polonsky)
Bessarabia (Z. Bardichever, arr. S. Belarsky)
Viglid (L. Yampolsky, arr. S. Belarsky)
My Soul is Anchored in The Lord/Va’ani Tefilati (Psalm 69)


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