How many significant secular musical figures were the children of cantors? The journey from the synagogue to the concert hall and beyond is a story that America made famous, through the life of Al Jolson, and the composers of Broadway and Hollywood like Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen. But that pattern can also be seen all over the Jewish world, from a quintessential Brit like Edwardian viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis, to the composer of the Can Can, Jacques Offenbach. Comedy is not the quality that most readily springs to mind when thinking of a cantor’s repertoire. Offenbach went against the grain of his father’s musical vocabulary and carved his niche through dozens of satirical operettas. Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which is being revived in John Schlesinger’s 1980 production at the Royal Opera House, benefits from being attached to the storytelling of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who features as a character.
This season kicks off with mixed dancing, outdoors. The Jewish Music Institute (JMI) has overseen the education of hundreds of people in the UK, pioneering a British klezmer movement of practitioners and enthusiasts for Jewish musical culture of the past and present. Its signature free event, Klezmer in the Park, annually attracts an audience of thousands. It returns to the bandstand at Regents Park in September, and this year Lorin Sklamberg from New York’s Klezmatics will be sharing the stage with British players who learnt their skills from his US colleagues. This year the JMI is broadening out from Klezmer in the Park to create its first festival, JAM (or Jewish Arts and Music), featuring recollections of Menuhin, a celebration of vinyl history, and the launch of Artistic Director Sophie Solomon’s new album.
English Touring Opera, who have served the UK for over three decades, have taken to adding a concert series to their regular opera tours. In this case, Bach’s St John Passion is travelling to the British regions over the Autumn. The piece has particular discomforts from a Jewish perspective. As Bach scholar Michael Marissen points out, John’s gospel contains repeated references to the enemy as “the Jews”, and in Chapter Eight spills over from identification of a people to contempt, where this enemy is depicted as being unable to do other than evil. In Bach’s setting the chorus becomes a crowd of those Jews, calling for Christ’s execution, and the musical language for those clamouring sentiments has been described as over-zealous: text repetitions of “crucify him”, rapid-fire orchestral accompaniment. But Bach interpolates other texts into his setting, hymns from his own time, that add a personal, and universal, perspective. English Touring Opera’s innovation is to invite a range of theological perspectives to contribute to their performance, by inviting writers of different faiths and backgrounds to translate the choruses. Translators include former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Buddhist poet Maetreyabandhu, and Director of the Jewish Museum, Abigail Morris.
At the Barbican, a new season is launched this Autumn looking at The Sounds that Changed America, focusing on the leading post-war composers, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. Reich’s eightieth birthday is marked with a series of concerts in November, including a lecture on the emergence of West Coast Minimalism by the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, who describes it as “a purely American art, free of modernist anxiety and inflected with pop optimism”. With a steady pulse and simple harmonic language, the music invites audiences to witness its processes with unusual clarity, and lends itself well to interdisciplinary interpretation. As part of the season, filmmaker Tal Rosner has been commissioned to create a video installation responding to Reich’s Tehillim. Reich wrote about his piece, “One of the reasons I chose to set Psalms as opposed to parts of the Torah or Prophets is that the oral tradition among Jews in the West for singing Psalms has been lost. (It has been maintained by Yemenite Jews.) This meant that I was free to compose the melodies for Tehillim without a living oral tradition to either imitate or ignore.” Rosner’s work with classical music has taken in Schumann performances by the Labèque sisters, an orchestral work based on the Creation narrative in Genesis with Thomas Adès, and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. At the National Theatre his designs recently helped tell the Everyman story. He is an exciting choice to work with Reich’s piece, encompassing an ancient tradition and taking advantage of contemporary expressive freedom.
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