The old Woody Allen joke about a book of great Jewish athletes — it’s more of a pamphlet, really — wouldn’t work with great Jewish composers. So when pianists Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer, co-directors of the new music ensemble CONTINUUM, decided to present a program of works by modern American Jewish composers last month at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, their main problem was probably a simple one: How to choose?
From Bloch to Babbitt to Bernstein (take your pick: Leonard or Elmer), Jewish composers have contributed mightily to modern American musical culture. Some of their music has been distinctly Jewish in character, though that character has tended to change over time, as successive waves of German, Eastern European and Sephardic immigrants have lent their voices to the American musical landscape. And some of their music has not been recognizably Jewish at all, but was simply composed by people who just happened to be Jewish Both kinds were represented at the CONTINUUM concert, with the first half consisting of works replete with Jewish references, and the second comprising works that lacked even the merest hint of such. The program also captured the polyglot nature of the American Jewish community, with works by native-born Americans as well as imports from Germany, Argentina and France.
Of the internationalists, Osvaldo Golijov, who came to the United States by way of Argentina and Israel, is by far the most currently hyped, having been the subject of a month-long celebration at Lincoln Center this past January. Golijov’s panoramic style, which embraces klezmer, Jewish liturgical music and Argentinean tango, is a prime exemplar of the growing eclecticism of contemporary art music in general. But the composer’s Yiddishbbuk, a work in three movements for string quartet inspired by a collection of psalms, is distinctly unified in conception. The first movement is dedicated to the memory of three children interned at the Terezin concentration camp, the second and third to the memories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leonard Bernstein, respectively; yet all three share an almost unbearable intensity. In the second movement, Golijov’s keening upper-register melodies evoke the sound of a ghostly choir, punctuated by forceful pizzicatos; in the third, he conjures a tissue of prolonged dissonances, achingly slow glissandi and whispered asides, all tautly delivered at Kane Street by violinists Renée Jolles and Airi Yoshioka, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper. Even the spring sunlight filtering through the synagogue’s brilliantly colored stained-glass windows couldn’t counter the elegiac pall cast by the music.
Paul Schoenfeld’s “Trio,” however, could. Each of the piece’s four movements is based on an Eastern European melody, and the opening, “Freylakh,” wouldn’t be entirely out of place at a Hasidic wedding. Swirling Romantic episodes alternated with klezmerish ornaments in the violin and clarinet parts, exuberantly rendered by Jolles and by clarinetist Moran Katz. Katz’s woody chalumeau register also lent depth and a hint of menace to the sinister, lurching “March” and the slow, fantasia-like “Nigun.”
At intermission, composers Samuel Adler and Ursula Mamlok spoke about their experiences fleeing Nazi Germany. Both left the country in 1939, though Mamlok’s journey to the United States included a stop in Ecuador. Adler began his professional career as music director of a Dallas synagogue; his “Song of Songs,” which made its stateside premiere at the recital, is one of many works that reflect his immersion in Jewish liturgical music. Mamlok’s “Rhapsody,” on the other hand, is straight-up, secular chamber music, a self-contained world of spiky dissonances and motivic figures traded between viola and piano. Like Morton Feldman’s “Piano Four Hands,” a meditation on individual tones and fractured intervals delivered by Sachs and Seltzer, “Rhapsody” speaks not to the Jewishness of its creator but to her musical inventiveness, a quality that knows no particular ethnicity.
On that note, Darius Milhaud’s “Quintet No. 1” provided a fitting conclusion. A French émigré who came to the United States in 1940, bringing with him a style that fused European art music with hints of jazz and South American rhythm, Milhaud was an early-model Golijov who assimilated everything that caught his fancy. Seltzer, who studied with the composer during his tenure at Mills College in California, told a few glowing anecdotes about Milhaud before sitting down at the piano, where she invested his sparkling rhythms and fulgent melodies with all the passion of a true believer.
Alexander Gelfand is a writer and musician living in New York.