Evgeny Kissin is widely known as one of the greatest living pianists, a superstar, and, like many big-league musicians, a citizen of the world. He is also known as a pianist of Russian Jewish extraction. He is hardly known at all as an Israeli, and for good reason. He took Israeli citizenship only last December.
And he is emphatically not known, outside a small circle, as someone who recites Yiddish poetry from memory, much less as someone who does it during his concerts. Yet that’s exactly what he’s going to do Monday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Kissin’s concert is jointly presented by the Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica, a nonprofit group devoted to presenting works by Jewish composers. Getting a star of Kissin’s caliber to play little-known or obscure works — pieces by Ernest Bloch, Alexander Veprik, Alexander Krein and Moses Milner — is something of a feat. Getting him to recite Yiddish poems by Hayim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s unofficial poet laureate, and Isaac Leib Peretz, who helped gain recognition for Yiddish as an autonomous language, was not something anyone would have thought of asking; it was Kissin’s own idea. Kissin has already done this on a few occasions; he has even recorded two spoken CDs of Yiddish poetry.
“It’s unusual,” said James Loeffler, Pro Musica Hebraica’s resident scholar, of the Kennedy Center concert. “But it also affords a very dramatic window into Kissin’s intense mind at its most revealing. He’s a cipher, you know. But his deep love for these eloquent chestnuts of Yiddish verse is actually a fascinating phenomenon.”
Kissin, 42, is not a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of guy. Sporting a mop of curly hair over wide-set dark eyes, his scrolled lips often locked in a wondering half-smile, he tends to take the stage with brusque efficiency, plunge into his music, seal-bark the names of his encores, and resist telephone interviews with reporters in favor of e-mails, when possible. He’s direct, he’s no-nonsense, and he projects an air of detachment. Yet when it comes to Judaism and Israel, he can be surprisingly effusive.
“If I, as a human being and artist represent anything in the world, it is my Jewish people,” he said in a statement last fall when he was sworn in as an Israeli citizen, “and therefore Israel is the only state on our planet which I want to represent with my art and all my public activities, no matter where I live. When Israel’s enemies try to disrupt concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Jerusalem Quartet” — as they did in 2011 and 2010 in London — “I want them to come and make troubles at my concerts, too: because Israel’s case is my case, Israel’s enemies are my enemies, and I do not want to be spared of the troubles which Israeli musicians encounter when they represent the Jewish state beyond its borders.”
This from a man who was raised in the Soviet Union, has never been religiously observant, and came to some aspects of Judaism — for instance, a mastery of the Yiddish language — only in adulthood. “As a child, I used to hear my grandparents speak it a lot,” he said by e-mail, “so a nostalgic feeling for that language remained in me and I felt a desire to learn it.”
“He learned Yiddish to such perfection,” said Neil Levin, the artistic director of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, “that you cannot believe this is not 150 years ago and he is in secular Yiddish poetry circles in Poland.”
When you look at Kissin’s performance calendar, flexibility is not the first word that comes to mind. Since last fall, he has played a single recital program — music by Schubert and Scriabin — and he will continue playing it in venues around the world until June. He will then perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with several different orchestras before moving on to another recital program in November.
But he seems to have no particular resistance to learning new music, as long as it meets his standards of quality. The current concert came about when Charles Krauthammer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who founded Pro Musica Hebraica with his wife, Robyn, in 2008, met Kissin at a reception after a concert a couple of years ago.
“He wanted to be shown that there was very good music of the kind we believe ought to be played,” Krauthammer said, “classical Jewish music. But he was very open-minded about it. . . . We sent him stuff and he either approvingly responded or disapprovingly, until we found what he wanted.”
Reading poetry was not part of the original conception. The presenters planned to put Kissin on stage with Maxim Vengerov, the violinist, but plans for that venture broke down. Yet it seemed impractical to ask a star pianist to learn an entire evening’s worth of new music. “That’s when we came up with the idea of the poetry,” Krauthammer said.
Outside observers aren’t quite sure what to make of this. But there’s no questioning the sincerity of Kissin’s gesture. “He’s going to recite Yiddish poetry, which is a level of identification with Jewish culture that is very deep and very rare,” said Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic. “There aren’t a lot of people who can do that anymore. For someone of his generation to get up and proudly recite Yiddish,” he continued, is unusual — not least because Yiddish, long the vernacular of international Judaism, was severely proscribed in the early days of the state of Israel, seen as a language of oppression and the diaspora.
Taking Israeli citizenship was an idealistic, striking, and brave thing to do. “It is a countercultural act of dissent, nothing less,” said Wieseltier, pointing to what he sees as a current fashion for putting down Israel in academia — witness the boycott of Israeli educational institutions by the American Studies Association — and culture. “It’s obviously a gesture of pure integrity and principle,” Wieseltier added, “because nobody gets handsomely rewarded for Jewish patriotism.”
It remains to be seen how well Monday’s unorthodox presentation goes over on an artistic level. Kissin is not the first concert pianist to give poetry readings — Alfred Brendel has published several volumes of his own work — but mingling music and poetry is often seen as being slightly minor-league. Tzimon Barto was castigated by critics for offering one of his own poems before his encore at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert in 2004, and when Van Cliburn recited a poem from the stage in 1989, a reviewer likened it to “some ladies’ musicale in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was born.”
Kissin, of course, will be reading great poetry by other poets rather than his own work, in a language unknown to most of his audience. “I think it is very much like performing music,” he said of his recitations. But he can’t pretend to bring the same expertise to poetry recitation that he brings to playing the piano, as he’s the first to admit. “I want to make it clear that playing music is my profession,” he wrote, “whereas reciting poetry is my hobby.”
As for the music, Kissin said he is solidly behind the works on this program, which focuses on Russian composers of the early 20th century who pioneered the exploration of Jewish folk themes in concert music. There are clear parallels, Loeffler points out: Like Kissin, these composers grew up non-observant and became more deeply involved with their own Judaism the more they learned about it.
“I’ll keep playing all of them for as long as I’m alive,” Kissin wrote.
Levin, of the Milken Archive, has higher hopes. The Milken Archive shares a general goal with Pro Musica Hebraica: to spread the word about Jewish composers. “If somebody like Kissin champions it, that really is the ultimate hope,” he said, citing Artur Rubinstein’s support of Alb
But as this pianist prepares to show another, more personal side of himself, not even the presenters are sure what to expect.
“Well, the people are warned,” Krauthammer said. “We’re not springing this on anybody.”
Evgeny Kissin will play at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. Monday.