Exploring a World Of 'Jewish Music'

Violinist Itzhak Perlman will play in the opener of the Pro Musica Hebraica concert series.
Violinist Itzhak Perlman will play in the opener of the Pro Musica Hebraica concert series. (Washington Performing Arts Society)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Just what is "Jewish music," anyway? In some cases the answer is clear: liturgical music and Yiddish operetta; klezmer and Israeli pop. But in this realm of classical or art music, you run into all kinds of semantic debates. Is "Jewish music" music written by Jewish composers, including Bernstein's "West Side Story"? What about pieces written by non-Jewish composers, such as Bruch's "Kol Nidrei" or Ravel's "Kaddisch" or Dave Brubeck's oratorio "The Gates of Justice," recorded and released as part of the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music's initial offering of 50 CDs?

Stop asking already and just put it on. Operating on this principle, the new concert series Pro Musica Hebraica is presenting its first performance at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater tomorrow night, with musicians from the Juilliard School and Itzhak Perlman as a special guest. The series's ambitious and loosely defined goal is to present "Jewish music" -- until the first concert is over, the organizers are not going to commit definitely to anything more specific than that.

This first concert, however, has a particular focus. One reason Jewish art music is so hard to pin down is that it is a relatively new phenomenon. Neil Levin, artistic director of the Milken Archive (which is not affiliated with the series), postulates that "an important watershed in Jewish cultural history" was the founding, in 1908, of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg, the first association devoted to collecting and promulgating Jewish musical traditions. And Pro Musica Hebraica's inaugural event celebrates the centenary of that watershed, presenting composers of this St. Petersburg school -- Joel Engel, Solomon Rosowsky, Alexander Krein -- whose works are all but forgotten.

"This is remarkable music," Robyn Krauthammer says, "and it should enter the lists as concert music."

This idea became a mission for Krauthammer, an Australian-born lawyer turned artist, after she heard some of the music at local synagogue concerts, "performed well and semi-well," she says. Accordingly, she and her husband, Charles Krauthammer, the provocative Washington Post political columnist, decided to use their small family foundation to fund a series in Washington. "I could see it needed to be lifted a notch, to concert level," she says.

One might assume the Krauthammers simply wrote a check or hosted a fundraiser. In fact, they rolled up their sleeves and set out to learn to put on a professional concert. At the end of four years, they have found a venue (the Kennedy Center), hired a research director (James Loeffler, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia whose specialty is the St. Petersburg school) and learned that if you want musicians who are willing to learn new, unfamiliar repertory, a music school is the best place to turn. Working with virtually no staff, responsible for every detail down to the catering, they were told there would be a table in the theater lobby where their staff could hand out VIP tickets. "So I look at Robbie," says Charles Krauthammer, laughing, "and say, 'Okay, which one of us is it going to be?' "

They have also enlisted sound professional partners, like their artistic adviser, the conductor James Conlon, whose own, not unrelated mission is to restore to the repertoire the music of composers suppressed by the Nazis. In planning Thursday's program, Conlon and Loeffler sought to create something at once arresting and crowd-pleasing. "We wanted to start," Loeffler says, "with something that we figured was the most original and distinctive part of what we can offer."

The emotional range is considerable, from Leo Zeitlin's "Eli Zion" (1914), once a popular showpiece for violinists, to a prescient 1943 piano trio by Mikhail Gnesin called "Requiem for Our Lost Children." There is even a nod to the present with "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," written by Osvaldo Golijov in 1994.

In 2006, a Jewish-themed series at New York's Central Synagogue fizzled out after a season. The picture has changed considerably since Herman Berlinski, a prolific composer and organist, led a flourishing series at Washington Hebrew Congregation in the 1960s that included secular works and a festival of contemporary sacred music. (Berlinski did meet with opposition to a program of Jewish composers for an organ recital in Tel Aviv in 1974; the organizers uninvited him, saying they wanted Bach and Handel, apparently oblivious to the irony of demanding German composers rather than Jewish ones.)

So as the Krauthammers test the waters, their flexibility may prove to be a strength. It is partly strategic; they decided not to seek new partners until they had proved themselves with the first concert. After that, their dreams are big, but their plans for two or more concerts a year remain vague.

"We want to graduate to orchestral performances, and an opera or two, and that will take big bucks," Robyn Krauthammer says, with eagerness that some might find naive. Sephardic music? Hollywood scores? Lectures at the Library of Congress? Bernstein? They are open to it all.

"I like to think of it as an open question," says Loeffler of the goal of the series, "exploring the theme of Jewishness and music, as opposed to defining it, circumscribing it, putting a label on it; because that's not the way art works. We're keeping it loose not only because of the music we're interested in, but also out of philosophical conviction."

Education -- training a new generation to appreciate this music -- is another point of the exercise. This is a cornerstone of Conlon's own philosophy. "I don't see how one can remain insensitive to the fact that there are many works, volumes of music, that we have not had the chance to hear, to integrate," he says. "More important than hearing it once is hearing it a second time."

His idea is that as musicians learn the work, it will be heard again and again, and assume the place in the repertory that it deserves. His hypothesis has yet to be proved, but it is a good thing to hope for. "If only a few of these compositions end up in the canon," Charles Krauthammer says, "it will be a great achievement."

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