Music review: Gil and Orli Shaham perform Jewish folk-based music

April 11, 2011

Siblings Gil and Orli Shaham dug into their cultural roots on Sunday evening at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, in a program consisting entirely of Jewish music. The concert had been booked all season as pianist Orli’s solo recital, but with an upcoming date for the duo program at 92nd Street Y in New York, they decided to try it out here first.

It is, of course, always admirable when artists embrace their heritage, even (or especially) when it’s not mainstream. The Shahams are both as charming and personable as anyone you’ll ever meet, and the ESP of their musical collaboration, unbroken since early childhood, is a delight to watch.

The program ranged from classics such as Bloch’s “Baal Shem Suite” and Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” to lesser-known pieces by Josef Bonime, George Perlman and Leo Zeitlin; introduced a new work by Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973); and threw in an honorary Jewish work, three pieces by John Williams from the film “Schindler’s List.”

This genre (and many of these pieces) has been mined before, most notably by Itzhak Perlman. But the more the merrier; the earthy emotions expressed are universal, and the music itself can be irresistibly visceral. Having said that, this folk-based music does not encompass the full artistic range of a traditional program. And I’m not sure what it says for a centuries-old, deeply ethnic musical style that a Hollywood composer can nail it just as convincingly as those who have written in it exclusively their entire careers. Leshnoff’s new work, “Yiddish Dance Suite,” brought in a more eclectic frame of reference, including a wider harmonic palette, jazzier rhythms and a more optimistic aesthetic.

Gil, one of the world’s best fiddlers, fully reveled in the schmaltz, the sobbing, the virtuosity and the humor as they passed by. The piano parts were mostly in the nature of an accompaniment, but whenever Orli had a chance to shine, she did not disappoint. It was odd, though, that Gil needed to use sheet music throughout the evening, including for Bloch’s “Nigun,” a staple of nearly every undergraduate violin recital. If/when he internalizes the music more, his intonation will be more precise as well.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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