Pittsburgh audiences will be treated to an evening of Yiddish art song and instrumental chamber music as the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival returns to Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Levy Hall on Monday, June 25 at 7:30 p.m. following a four-year hiatus from live performances.
Featured in the program, titled “Hebrew Melodies,” will be repertoire by Russian-Jewish composers affiliated with the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music (1908-1918), focusing on works by the violinist and composer Joseph Achron, including several newly discovered chamber ensemble versions arranged by Achron himself.
“Three Hebrew Workers’ Songs” and incidental music to “The Golem” will be performed from the composer’s manuscripts, having rarely been performed in public.
While the Festival’s Pittsburgh concerts were discontinued for the past four years as a result of director Aron Zelkowicz having moved to Boston, the Festival has nonetheless continued its outreach by releasing internationally distributed commercial recordings.
“Each year we’ve put out a new CD devoted to a different composer as part of a ‘Russian Jewish Classics,’” Zelkowicz said in an email. “These albums are released and distributed by Toccata Classics, an independent classical music label based in London that specializes in unknown composers. As a result, the performances we’ve given to Pittsburgh audiences have been broadcast in New Jersey, reviewed in Germany and the Netherlands, and are even distributed in Asian markets.”
The Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival was founded in 2004 by Zelkowicz, a cellist. Since then, the Festival has programmed over 150 pieces of classical chamber and orchestral music inspired by Jewish traditions.
One of the motivations for the return concert, Zelkowicz said, “is the opportunity to record the sixth volume in this series devoted to the music of Joseph Achron. The CDs really wouldn’t be complete without some contribution from Achron, who was perhaps the most celebrated composer to have emerged from this group of Russian composers who worked with Jewish source material a century ago.”
Achron was part of a group of composers working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wanted to compose Jewish classical music “the same way that people like Tchaikovsky were writing Russian classical music and Franz Liszt was writing Hungarian classical music,” explained Samuel Zerin, a musicologist and founder of the Joseph Achron Society.
The music created by that group, Zerin continued, is not only important because it is Jewish music, but because “it’s really great classical music even if you forget the Jewish aspect of it.”
These works, he added, are also significant because their composers proved that Jewish music did in fact exist as a genre despite the fact that Jews as a people were not associated with a particular country as were, for example, Russians and Germans.
“A lot of people today take for granted that there is such a thing as Jewish music,” said Zerin. “If you ask someone what Jewish music is, they will say klezmer music, or synagogue music, or Yiddish folk songs. But even 100 years ago, there was a lot of debate over whether such a thing as Jewish music even existed in the first place.”
Naysayers, beginning in the mid-19th century and continuing until the early 20th century, “were saying there is no such thing as Jewish music, it can’t possibly exist, it doesn’t make any sense. How could music be Jewish? You can talk about Russian music because there is a place called Russia, and there are people called the Russian people. And you can talk about German music because there is a place called Germany and there are German people, but what music do Jews have?”
Achron and his colleagues began collecting Jewish music “and figuring out what was Jewish about it,” Zerin said. “They are the ones that started researching synagogue music and figuring out what is Jewish synagogue music. They are the ones that started researching klezmer music and started figuring out what is klezmer music and what makes it different from Polish music or Russian music, and it wasn’t an easy process. They were really pioneers in this whole field of research, and nowadays klezmer music is a thing, and Jewish folk music is a thing, and it’s really because of them.”
Audiences who are familiar with Achron know him primarily through his works for violin, mainly, the “Hebrew Melody” and “Hebrew Lullaby,” according to Zelkowicz. The June 25 program, however, will focus on some of his more obscure pieces.
“Achron actually created different arrangements of some of his most popular works, like the ‘Canzonetta’ or the ‘Hebrew Melody,’” Zelkowicz said. “This program includes essentially unknown versions for voice with string accompaniments, some of them straight from Achron’s unpublished manuscripts. We’ll get to experience his craft as a miniaturist, conveying a world of moods in songs that run less than three minutes each.”
The program will also include music by Achron’s colleagues Alexander Zhitomirsky, Hirsch Kopit and Lazar Saminsky. Featured vocalist Tehila Nini Goldstein, an Israeli whose career is based in Europe, will be flying into Pittsburgh from Berlin for the concert.
“Tehila has already performed some of Achron’s songs with the pianist and scholar Jascha Nemtsov, who is the leading authority on composers like Achron and his fellow colleagues from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music,” Zelkowicz said. “The songs will be performed in either Yiddish, Hebrew, or Russian.”
In addition to the soprano, the concert will feature eight instrumentalists: a string quartet, pianist, clarinet, trumpet, and horn.
Tickets are available at chambermusicpittsburgh.org. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.