in: Reviews

September 8, 2011

Overbearing Talk, Powerful Ghetto Songs

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On September 6, 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto in the Lithuanian town of Vilna, forcing thousands of Jews to relocate and live out what would, for most of them, be their last years in this village-prison. This past Thursday, September 6, at the Goethe-Institut Boston, a singer, a scholar, and a pianist presented songs written and performed for and by those Jews as they tried to bring a sense of normalcy and creativity to their desperate situation. Lecturer and Yiddish literature expert Susanne Klingenstein crafted a thoughtful and revealing presentation of fourteen songs by Vilna poets and musicians, most of whom were murdered in the Nazi’s slaughter frenzy toward the end of the war. (For more information on the Vilna Ghetto and its artists, see Toni Norton’s “Vilna Ghetto Recalled in Yiddish Song”.

The lecture-recital is a tricky format, mainly because it often ends up more lecture than recital. The music becomes the sonic equivalent of illustrations in an academic paper rather than the structural and emotional focus of the event. When your lecturer is as knowledgeable and passionate about the topic as Klingenstein, it is almost inevitable that a large part of the performance ends up being someone talking about the music; and talk she did. She offered a term paper’s worth of historical, biographical, analytical (sometimes over-analytical), and interpretive information on the texts and music, as well as the artists who originally wrote and performed them. At the end of the program, she even sang a couple of the songs (along with the pianist), a sign that she truly engaged every level that these works inhabit. Yet, all that talk was at times overbearing, upstaging the simple, powerfully direct impact of the songs themselves.

These pieces, however, had survived a ghetto and a Nazi death camp, so an over-enthusiastic academic presented little hindrance.  They were brought to life by pianist Eugenia Gerstein and mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux, both fine musicians who performed the songs with grace and skill. Michaux’s voice is a luscious shade of burgundy, velvety and ever so slightly smoky. Her Yiddish diction was clear, almost speech-like, as if she were telling stories rather than singing songs, an effective technique for the Goethe Institute’s intimate concert venue. However, her interpretations were rarely more than narrative, and she missed opportunities to delve into the deep emotional layers that many of the songs offered. Similarly, Gerstein’s accompanying style seemed more supportive than collaborative, and her somewhat monochromatic tone dulled much of what was evocative in the piano parts, especially in the more harmonically and texturally rich arrangements by Henech Kon.

Nonetheless, the beauty and strength of the songs shone through. They are stylistic offspring of Jewish folk and European cabaret, with hues of klezmer and hints of operetta, all radiating the subtly overt poignancy of a people whose cultural experience has forced them over the centuries to smile through tears. Among them were wrenching stories borne of the Holocaust (Es iz geven a zumer-tog, Shtiler, shtiler); rousingly defiant and hopeful anthems (Es shlogt di sho, Mir lebn eybik), and a couple of true gems (Friling, Es dremlen feygl oyf di tsvaygn) that could easily hold their ground in the art song repertoire. As with so many who perished or barely survived that terrible time, the composers and lyricists of these songs—people like Shmerke Kaczerginski, Avrum Brudno, and Kasriel Broydo—are artists whose names nearly disappeared with them. Thankfully, there are scholars and performers today, like Klingenstein, Gerstein, and Michaux, who keep these rarely performed pieces alive. They are works that must be revisited and remembered if for no other reason than their creators represent what the best of human spirit can accomplish against the worst of human barbarism.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

4 Comments

  1. Was ein richtiger Schnauber ist, der muss sich auch mal ausschnauben koennen und das haben Sie ja jetzt getan. In zwei Jahren ist der 70. Jahrestag des Aufstandes im Warschauer Ghetto. Zu dieser Gelegenheit dürfen wir Sie einladen, einen besseren Vortrag zu halten.
    I did not speak about the music at all. I spoke about the historical circumstances of the production of these songs. We did not plan a concert but an evening of learning and immersion in the years 1942-43. Too bad really that all that human misery did not touch you, Herr Schnauber.
    In two years, though,on April 19, 2012, I am sure, you will do a much better, less overbearing job. Start by learning Yiddish, start by being moved.

    Susanne Klingenstein

    Comment by Susanne Klingenstein — September 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm

  2. Oje, O weh, Frau Klingenstein, Sie haben in mein steinkaltes Herz wie mit einer Klinge geschnitten. Doch beruhigen Sie sich etwas und versuchen Sie den Bericht nochmals zu lesen; er ist ja nicht so kellerisch finster.

    Comment by Tom Schnauber — September 8, 2011 at 7:04 pm

  3. To belabor the point on the billing of this event, raised in the comment from Ms. Klingenstein to Mr. Schnauber’s review, here is the press release sent to us from the Goethe-Institut on August 28:

    “The Vilna Ghetto Theater
    Yiddish Poetry Set to Music (1941-1943)

    Concert
    Tuesday, September 6, 2011, 7:30 pm
    Goethe-Institut Boston, 170 Beacon Street, Boston
    In English (songs in Yiddish)
    Admission: $5 (Members of “What is German?” seminar free with RSVP)…”

    So Schnauber’s comments in his review are entirely appropriate.
    And they are far from hard-hearted. He also contributed to the discussion of why a “self-confident” poem would be set to music in a minor key: Eastern European culture used minor keys often, he said, and not in the perceived Western tradition of “happy-major, sad-minor.”

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — September 9, 2011 at 4:14 pm

  4. A thoughtful review, marred by some unfortunate word choices. “Overbearing” is a bit much for a presentation that may simply have been too long for some tastes. Too bad this word led the headline. “Academic” is another “dirty word;” “term paper” and “over-analytical” exacerbated the put-down. Cultural historians aim to enhance, not impinge upon, an audience’s understanding and appreciation of works of art by placing them in their social and historical context. Klingenstein fulfilled my expectations in this area, in no way diminishing my enjoyment of the performances.

    Comment by Virginia Newes — September 10, 2011 at 10:15 pm

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