At Evgeny Kissin’s December 16 “Jewish Music and Poetry” Concert at Carnegie Hall, the Moscow-born virtuoso masterfully sailed through Ernest Bloch’s (1880-1959) 24-minute 1945 Piano Sonata Op. 40, Alexander Veprik’s (1899-1958) Piano Sonata No 2. Op 5 (1924), and Alexander Krein’s (1883-1951) Suite dansee, Op. 44 (1928). But between keyboard magic, it was his recitation (in Yiddish) of fourteen of Yiddish poet Yitzhak Leybush Peretz’ (1852-1915) monumental poems that transfixed an audience that included Yiddish Forward editor Boris Sandler, YIVO Executive Director Jonathan Brent, and attorney and author Alan Dershowitz.
Wearing a black shirt and dark slacks, the excellent overhead supertitles keeping pace with Kissin’s rhythmic delivery in a Russian-inflected Yiddish—a language he mastered as magnificently as he has his piano repertoire with Kissin inhabiting each of Peretz’s poetic gems. Fearlessly he channeled “My Muse,” “Hope and Faith,” “The World’s A Theater”, “Don’t Think,” “Once,” “Black Wings,” “Forgotten and Dusty,” “Longing and Sorrow” and — as his finale — a wrenching “What Do I Want From You?” whose last stanza reads: “And in my last minute…Oh come to me then! Before the eye breaks, I want to see you for the last time, and take your picture with me there. For eternity…” The audience — with a significant Russian émigré representation — reacted, as would a man in a desert to a flask of water.
Having grown up with Peretz’ stories and poems in Yiddish schools in Warsaw, Vilno, Montreal and New York — Kissin’s interpretation and poetry range was a revelation that left me awestruck and beyond farklempt.
At the post performance award presentation to Kissin, Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson told a select reception assemblage: ”In Japan, when somebody is or does extraordinary things, they are called ‘National Treasures.” A cheery nakhas-schepping Ido Aharoni—Israel’s consul general in New York — amplified: “Tonight Evgeny is not just a ‘National Treasure,’ he’s everybody’s treasure. We understood what his roots and his background mean to him. And I am here on behalf of my government to present a special award to a great leader of our nation’s creative spirit.”
Reading the dedication: “This is being bestowed upon you for captivating with your brilliant artistry displaying a passion for musical excellence,” Aharoni then cited a “Hebrew quote from Warsaw-born Natan Alterman — one of the greatest poets in Hebrew in 1938: ‘Since you took me by storm…eternally shall I play thee.’”
A visibly embarrassed Kissin—in suit and tie— declared: “I’m afraid I am not as eloquent with words as I am at the piano…. So many heartfelt thanks to you all… for having come and for sharing it with me.” Among the reception guests: Israeli film director and screenwriter Joseph Cedar whose 2012 film “Footnote” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and Park Avenue Synagogue’s cantor Azi Schwartz who—I was told — will star in Cedar’s — as yet untitled—forthcoming film.