Jew’ish’ Proms

The big show is Fiddler On The Roof. Thousands in the Royal Albert Hall will be shrugging with Bryn Terfel, as Tevye, about the mysteries of “Tradition”, and attending the wedding wondering “when did he grow to be so tall?”. Fiddler has many Jewish detractors; no element of this hit show has gone uncriticised. The plot ruins the original ‘Tevye’ stories of Sholem Aleichem. The music is a bastardization of Yiddish wedding klezmer music; its “Jewish” themes are unsophisticated next to the genuine article. The shtetl described, Anatevka, is too twee to be credible. It is worrying that there are people whose entire knowledge of Jewish practice comes from this show. Yet a recent book by Alisa Solomon, author of the Fiddler’s Fortunes blog, shows how seriously Fiddler’s creators took their subject, especially director Jerome Robbins, despite—or perhaps as a result of—having left Jewish observance behind.

In a curious piece of parallel programming, one of the featured composers at this year’s Proms is Arnold Schoenberg. And one of the concerts will be by Daniel Barenboim and his West Eastern Divan Orchestra, featuring young musicians from Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Barenboim’s choice of Schoenberg is, in itself, fascinating. Schoenberg made a complex journey away from, and back to, Judaism, and his dismissal from his post at the Prussian Academy of Arts, followed by subsequent emigration to Los Angeles, led to his enthusiastic Jewish nationalism—as well as the creation of works with specifically Jewish themes. Schoenberg’s opera, Moses und Aron, was unfinished, but smaller works include a setting of ‘Kol Nidrei’, and his gripping narration with orchestra, A Survivor from Warsaw.

In April 1951, in Jerusalem, Schoenberg commented that, “Just as God chose Israel to be the people whose task it is to maintain the pure, true, Mosaic monotheism despite all persecution… so, too, it is the task of Israeli musicians to set the world an example.” Perhaps Barenboim and his young colleagues are doing just that when they perform Schoenberg’s concise early work, the “Chamber Symphony no 1”.

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The 2015 BBC Proms starts on 17 July.

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