Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival draws inspiration from fables
Three of the most renowned tales in Jewish folklore will come to life beginning this week, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival.
The Festival, an annual summer concert series founded in 2004 by cellist Aron Zelkowicz, will combine multiple artistic disciplines to present “Fables and Legends,” exploring Jewish tales through music, film and theater.
The Festival will open on June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh with “The Golem,” which many believe to be a precursor to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” The 16th century story of a rabbi who animates a clay giant to protect the Jewish people, will feature Betty Olivero’s live score played in conjunction with a screening of the silent German film “Der Golem” (1920).
While several different composers have created scores for the film, Zelkowicz said he chose Olivero’s version, written in 1997, because it incorporates “Jewish-sounding influences” and contemporary sounds, as well as music that evokes the Renaissance, the timeframe of the original story.
The Festival will continue on June 6 at 7:30 p.m. with the obscure Hebrew play “Jacob and Rachel,” written in 1928.
“Jacob and Rachel,” which will be performed at Rodef Shalom Congregation, tells the biblical tale of Jacob’s quest for a wife, and the deception of his father-in-law, Lavan, substituting one daughter for another.
The story will be dramatized by excerpts from the play, along with a musical suite, originally written for the pro- duction by Solomon Rosowsky.
The part of Lavan will be played by Cantor Richard Berlin, spiritual leader of the Parkway Jewish Center.
Because the excerpts from the play are read from a podium, without traditional theatrical blocking, Berlin said, the actors must focus on vocal tones and gestures to connect with each other.
“The music helps provide a sense of the story,” Berlin said. “It’s really a nice combination. Aron (Zelkowicz) and his cohorts should be congratulated for putting this together in such an elegant way.”
“Jacob and Rachel” was first performed in 1928 in Tel Aviv at the Ohel Theater.
“It was one the Theater’s first productions,” Zelkowicz said. “The story begins with Jacob taking God’s order to go to Canaan and find a bride from Lavan’s camp, and to give seed to the people of Israel. It is an allegory for the Israelis’ pride and personal stake as Israelis.”
The Festival will conclude with “The Dybbuk” on June 12 and 13, both at 7:30 p.m., at Temple Emanuel of South Hills and Rodef Shalom Congregation, respectively.
The classic Yiddish play tells the tale of a pious young man who resorts to radical mysticism to be with the woman he loves, going so far as possessing her soul.
“‘The Dybbuk’ is the most famous Yiddish play, and one of the most famous Jewish plays,” Zelkowicz said. “It was written by an ethnographer, S. Anski, and it was the only play he wrote. He went out to the Jewish settlements in Poland and Lithuania and Russian, and looked at the artifacts of their culture, as well as the spiritual aspect of their lives. They did believe in spirits and dybbuks. He took the cultural identifiers, and made a play out of them.”
“The Dybbuk” was based on a story An-ski had been told about a young girl who was possessed on her wedding night by the dybbuk of another man. An-ski originally intended his work to be a documentary, presenting a picture of Eastern European Jewish folk life exactly as it was.
“The Dybbuk” premiered in 1920, one month after the death of An-ski, in Warsaw at the Elysium Theater.
The Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival (pjmf.net) will perform Joel Engel’s “Dybbuk Suite,” taken from the complete incidental music to the play, as scored for strings, clarinet and percussion.
Excerpts of the play will be performed as a dramatic reading in English translation, again featuring Cantor Richard Berlin.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)