A portrait concert of composer Derek David will feature new vocal and chamber works that reflect upon Jewish identity and Yiddish culture in a contemporary landscape. The Boston Festival of New Jewish Music event, hosted by MIT Music & Theater Arts in Kresge Auditorium, on Saturday, March 18th at 7:00pm will feature the full premiere of Derek’s Clarinet Quintet Oh World, Goodnight by Del Sol Quartet with Andrew Friedman (and a surprise appearance by Carduus Choir), and the premiere of String Quartet No. 4 Kaddish with Verona Quartet. Vocal works will include Four Yiddish Folksongs from members of Ezekiel’s Wheels (Nat Seelen and Abigale Reisman), pianist Renana Gutman, and soprano Megan Jones; and choral works with A Besere Velt, the world’s largest Yiddish chorus.
David Stevens interviewed Derek David:
DS: The Boston Festival of New Jewish Music (BFNJM) is a young organization, only in its second season. How did your involvement with this festival come about and how does your project participate in their theme?
DD: Well, I’ve known Nat Seelen [Director of the BFNJM] for quite a long time, both as a musician outside of Jewish circles as well as him as a leader within Jewish music in the Boston area and star clarinetist of Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band. He has dedicated so much of himself into this festival to give a platform specifically to artists who are working in the very broad range of Jewish music, which could be anything from new Sephardic music in Ladino, Children’s music, folk traditions, modern Yiddish concert music, or even new jazz liturgical music.
And so I had been a part of the festival before simply invited to sing some Yiddish folk songs and as a volunteer for their concerts held at the Boston Synagogue. When planning this season, he offered me this opportunity and I was extraordinarily grateful and humbled.
With your extensive conservatory training and a music background rooted in the classical tradition, how do your works on this program fit in with the theme of the festival?
Surprisingly, my “Jewish music” or “Yiddish-themed music” is a very recent part of my musical life. It’s not something that had been front and center of the work that I had done previously, even though being Jewish is central to my identity. It was a profound coincidence that I decided that I wanted to study Yiddish right after I finished my doctorate at New England Conservatory. With my first language course through the Boston Workers Circle, it was an immediate life shift for me that exposed me not only to the intricate beauty of the language, but also the vibrant living Yiddish arts and culture. I felt as though it gave me permission to express that part of who I am musically in a way that I hadn’t before immersing in a community Yiddish speakers and artists.
You direct A Besere Velt, the chorus of the Boston Workers Circle. In addition to its providing a seamless interaction of your language studies and musical life, what would you want to highlight about this group?
NEC faculty Hankus Netsky jokes that he was making a Shidukh (match) when he encouraged me to apply for the music director position. Initially, I honestly had the image in my head of a retirement community crossed with grumbling communists, informally singing the songs of their grandparents. But I quickly (and humbly) learned that this chorus has a very expansive—both musical and political—history unto itself. With around 80 members, some who have been a part of the group for 20 years or more, this left-wing activist Yiddish chorus is deeply passionate about Yiddish culture, secular Judaism, social justice and activism. I was very amazed by the group and very impressed by them all as individuals.
As director of the world’s largest Yiddish chorus, I feel a big responsibility constantly to be a student of Yiddish, learn from the members, and participate in this vibrant community. It’s a very meaningful part of my life. It was also a big learning curve for me because there was a lot of Yiddish music that I had to learn quickly.
In addition to an original Yiddish madrigal that I composed, I will also lead them in a work that exemplifies their rich history. Yugnt Himn (Youth Anthem) is perhaps one of a handful of songs that we have from the Vilna ghetto during the Holocaust. It is a rousing hymn sung by the youth in the ghetto, who along with the rest of the community, carried out the rare against the Germans. And so this is for us, a very uplifting song that proclaims we are all young at heart and we’re all ready to fight for a just and free new world.
The Ruth Rubin Legacy archives, now accessible online through YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, was where you drew your inspiration for Four Yiddish Folksongs. What specific impact do these field recordings have on you?
Actually, I first heard Yugnt Himn on a Ruth Rubin Archives recording released by the Smithsonian. After the war, the singer Shmerke Kaczerginski, a survivor of the Holocaust, documented Yiddish poetry, literature, and music from that period.
To me, the repertoire preserved in these archives feels like the music I was born remembering. When I hear them, it’s like I’m hearing the voices of my grandparents (with their vocal cadences when they speak and little twists and turns in the melodies they sing). They are some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I had them in my ear long before they started to trickle into my music.
The first thing I ever wrote with these folksongs in mind was my fourth string quartet Kaddish, which will be performed by my dear friends of the Verona Quartet. There are two separate folk songs in dialogue with each other that help me explore a deep personal loss at the time. Although the quartet is not a religious work, and does not mean to express overtly religious sentiments, it does, like the act of saying Kaddish, offer a prayer of mourning and loss without mentioning loss or death. I went through a processes of grieving through these folk songs, through these wordless Jewish melodies.
You dedicate the second half to the premiere of your four-movement, 60-minute long, Clarinet Quintet “Oh World, Goodnight.” You beat Brahms and Feldman for length in that medium, but what does it hope to convey?
From a compositional perspective, my yearlong immersion in the practice of Partimento was a huge phycological realignment for me, a complete 180 in how I thought about musical ideas and my personal style. In a way, the string quartet lives in the realm of pre-Partimento, and the quintet in this new territory, one that seems to allow me to express something deeply personal and specific about love and loss. Through the clarinetist, who will cycle through B-flat Clarinet, E-flat sopranino clarinet, and bass clarinet, I also found that klezmer ornamentation and Yiddish fused naturally with the virtuosic cadenzas and extended techniques familiar within contemporary writing.
This whole piece feels like a self-portrait, but moreso portrays my realization of society’s current peril. We seem to be on this no-so-slow moving train towards collapse of global civilization. Thus anxiety, insomnia, and fear creep into the second movement Sarabande, which I composed first. For the remaining movements, I found myself drawn to this chorale by Johann Christoph Bach: “Es ist nun au smit meinem Leben”, which obsesses about one’s death. It was rather terrifying than comforting for me, and while it haunts both the first and third movements, its theme stands front and center in the fourth, when all hell breaks loose, musically. So in the midst of the insanity, we come back to the final stanza of the Kaddish, the distant sound of prayer.
“May the One who brings peace to the universe bring peace to us and to all the people Israel. And let us say: Amen.
This time, however, it begs for peace for all of us.
This project is supported by a grant from the Combined Jewish Philanthropies Arts & Culture Community Impact Grant Fund and by Cambridge Arts and the City of Cambridge’s Local Cultural Council Grants funding. Additional supported provided by MIT Music & Theater Arts and the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music. Four Yiddish Folksongs was commissioned by YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Clarinet Quintet was co-commissioned by the Rossini Club (Nantucket) and the Del Sol Performing Arts Organization.
To register for in-person tickets or to receive a livestream link, visit here.