THE BLOG

Nice Jewish Music

02/18/2015 03:49 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

When Jerome Kern announced he was going to compose a score for a show based on Marco Polo, an enthusiastic reporter asked, "Mr. Kern, your new musical is based on an Italian who crossed the Alps and then the Leviathan desert, got to Mongolia, then China and finally returned home to Italy. For heaven's sake, what type of music will you compose?" Kern answered without missing a beat, "Nice Jewish music." (Oh, how I hope that's true.)

Last Monday I went to SubCulture, one of my favorite venues (it's the perfect size, 160 seats and has the friendliest staff plus a bar that actually closes during the performances) to see CONTACT!, a co-presentation of the 92nd Street Y and the New York Philharmonic. This concert, part of a series dedicated to performing new music, was called New Music from Israel, and, yes, it truly was "nice Jewish music!"

Substituting for an indisposed Lisa Batiashvili was the erudite Yotam Haber, a composer I deeply admire, Israeli or not. In fact, I knew the music of all four of the composers but had never once thought of three of them as particularly Israeli, although somewhere in my mind I guess I knew they were all born there.

As Haber took pains to explain in his welcome speech, Israel today is a melting pot; what it means to be Israeli is completely different than what it meant forty years ago. He joked that what was being presented was a Me'orav yerushalmi, or Jerusalem Mix, a grilled mix of meats that is often served as an appetizer. He talked about the dilemma of writing "nationalistic" music. Before the twentieth century most classical music did indeed have what could be termed a nationalistic sound, not because of a composer's politics but simply because traveling to other parts of Europe, let alone a neighboring country, was exceedingly difficult, and so composers were mostly exposed to the music of their compatriots. A national sound developed almost by default. In today's world of instant downloads from iTunes, or actually ever since first sound recording and then air travel became the norm, the nationalist sound of various regions became diffuse; a composer almost has to consciously decide to write music that would be deemed nationalistic.

The concert started with a composition by Joseph Bardanashvili, who was born in the Caucasus, in Georgia, in 1948 and emigrated to Israel in 1995. Since then he has been one of the country's most performed composers and it's easy to see why judging from the movement selected from his String Quartet No. 1, Quasi danza macabre. The piece begins with a riotous tango, the rhythms from Argentina but the harmonies directly from Bardanashvili's fertile imagination. It was as if Astor Piazolla, suddenly inspired, discovered Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky. The syncopations, the disjointed rhythms and the delicious harmonies made for a perfect opening. But suddenly, as the first section dissolved into the second by way of an astounding cello cadenza (played by the Nathan Vickery), we aurally high-tailed it out of Argentina and landed at Ben Gurion Airport.

The music turned decidedly modal, with the aching and longings of a wandering Jew, and we were smack in the Old City of Jerusalem. The cello and occasionally the viola kept an incessant beat with a macabre pedal tone as the two violins danced high above with shimmering but steely harmonics.

The main theme returned at the end, and the piece came to a rousing climax with a reprise of the infectious tango, the perfect way to open this me'orav yerushalmi.

Next up was Haber's own piece, and though I adore Haber's minimalist style with its post-Adams tunefulness and post-Glass syncopations, this piece Estro Poetico-armonico II is a dense concentration of sounds and pitches far removed from anything I've heard of his before. Suggested by the story of Benedetto Marcello, a Venetian contemporary of J.S. Bach's who hid in the Synagogue transcribing the ancient melodies, Haber took snippets of these tunes and compressed them into musical atoms. This piece was an interesting contradiction -- musically both dense and spare simultaneously. I loved how the "tunes" seemed to surface through the lowest notes of the bass clarinet (Lino Gomez) and then swirl into the modular trillings of the violins.

Shulamit Ran, the second woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for music, was perhaps the most well-known of the quartet although her piece, Mirage, for five players, seemed to me a minor work from a great composer.

I was most looking forward to hearing the piece by Avner Dorman, the composer I would have mentioned if someone asked me to name an Israeli composer. I was lucky enough to hear his outrageous piece at the NY Phil, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! in 2009, featuring the now (sadly) disbanded Perca-duo; it was one of the most sensational performances of a new piece I've ever heard. Dorman did not let me down with his aptly titled Jerusalem Mix. Blasting off with the rhythms of New York with more than a touch of Bernstein and Gershwin, the syncopated phrases engulfed the audience and took us on a virtual tour of New York City nightlife. But then just as suddenly as in the Bardanashvili, we were in Tel Aviv with Marc Nuccio on the clarinet and Sherry Sylar, oboe, inviting us to a Jewish Wedding. Of course, with Dorman, this is no let's-all-improvise-on-D-minor-and-dance-a-hora-type music, but a deeply contrapuntal excursion into the vernacular.

All through the evening I kept trying to hear any sort of unifying sound that would link these three disparate composers. It seems that in all of the pieces, surrounded by vibrant rhythms of dance and exotic colors, was an aura of sadness, loneliness and desperation. All components of "nice Jewish music."

And a postscript:

Before the CONTACT! concert, I went to the York Theater on Lexington (which is completely unmarked, can someone please put up a sign?) for a staged reading of an operatic version The Sleeping Beauty. The composer, Benjamin Wenzelberg, age 15, has been working on the opera since he was 11. He won the 2014 BMI Student Composer Award and a 2015 National Young Arts Foundation Merit winner. He sings in the Met Children's chorus, was a composer at Tanglewood last summer, studies composition and conducting at Juilliard, and I saw him as Miles in the NYCO production of The Turn of the Screw. I never use the "G" word, but if I did, I would burden Wenzelberg with it. So how was the opera? Wonderful. This was a true opera full of recitatives, choruses and arias that define and delineate character but, most importantly, is music-driven, not surprising for a young composer who grew up singing at the Met, but still. Plus Wenzelberg enlisted his "friends" to perform; nice to have friends like the legendary soprano Lauren Flanigan, who was at the top of her game. Watch out for this kid!