Ongoing since late February, “Migrations: The Making of America” celebrates the all-encompassing transformation of New York City’s cultural landscape through the vibrant heritage of those foreign to its shores. Its organizers at Carnegie Hall reached out to forge partnerships in all five boroughs, including theater and music venues, museums, libraries and arts centers. Almost 100 events -- concerts, some of which were broadcast locally, and virtual and on-site museum exhibitions augmented by courses, tours, lectures and panel discussions-- mainly focus on how the city’s cultural milieu was defined by a wide-ranging panoply of ethnic groups and how this process continues in our own time. Later this year, the opening night concert of Irish, Scottish and American folk music featuring award-winning composer and banjo great Béla Fleck will be heard on public radio stations across the country.
Unsurprisingly, the creative legacies of Jewish composers, performers and even a choreographer or two supplied the content of a good proportion of festival offerings. Many events were held at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street. It was there, on March 3rd, that silent film aficionados reveled in Molly Picon’s sprightly portrayal of a Jazz Age flapper who falls for a yeshiva student in “East and West,” with live orchestral accompaniment. Rarely or never-heard Yiddish songs from radio, film and theater were performed by members of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene during a March 10th concert at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
On March 27th, America’s premier interpreter of The Great American Song Book, Michael Feinstein, was onstage at Carnegie Hall for his one-man show of standards by the composers that he knows so well, including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
While the festival continues, there’s still time to enjoy some of its programs. One of the most opulent, to take place on April 15th at Carnegie Hall, might be described as a multi-generational, star-studded survey of repertory spanning klezmer to classical, all of which emanated from the Jewish presence in New York, and which continue to transform the city today. “From Shtetl to Stage: A Celebration of Yiddish Music and Culture,” a gallimaufry of theatrical sketches, production numbers, instrumental music and song will showcase violin virtuoso Gil Shaham, Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, pianist Evgeny Kissin and vocalists, including Katrina Lenk, the Tony Award--winning actress from the hit Israeli musical, “The Band’s Visit,” and Yiddish theater veterans Mike Burstyn and Eleanor Reissa, (the latter is also the show’s director).
A Yiddish and Ladino recital will be performed by Sephardic artist Sarah Aroeste and Ashkenazic specialist Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell with piano and accordion accompaniment at the West Side’s Marlene Meyerson Manhattan JCC on March 31st. On April 1st, the King Juan Carlos I Center of Spain will screen “A Brivele Der Mamen (A Letter to Mother),” one of the last Yiddish movies made in Poland. On April 7th, Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center will present “Music in Color,” a St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble concert devoted to music by Gabriela Lena Franks, a contemporary Lithuanian-Peruvian-Jewish-Chinese composer. At an April 10th lecture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Professor Mark Slobin will trace the roots and manifestations of Eastern European Jewish musical culture, and an ongoing exhibit of art by Israeli-American sculptor Boaz Vaadia in Chelsea runs through April 15th.
Yaniv Dinur, the Israeli-born conductor of the New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Milwaukee Symphonies and the previous recipient of three grants from the Solti Foundation in Evanston, Illinois, has been awarded the Foundation’s 2019 $30,000 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, given to musicians under the age of 38. The money can be spent for travel, study or the purchase of scores.
Considered one of the world’s greatest Wagnerian conductors, and esteemed for his interpretation of composers including Elgar, Verdi and Beethoven, the distinguished Maestro Solti (1912-1997), was a student of Bela Bartok, who had established a career in his native Hungary before increasing anti-Semitism forced him to emigrate in 1938, one year before the Nazi advent. Enjoying an international reputation, he was best known for his remarkable recordings made with the Chicago Symphony, where he served as music director for 22 years.
Those who heard the National Gallery’s Diamonstein-Spielvogel Lecture on Saturday, March 9th, delighted in the feisty commentary and quips of 91-year-old Alex Katz, an iconic artist whose career took off in the late 1950s and who is still painting gorgeous large-scale canvases today. The son of a Yiddish theater actress, Katz recounted his years as a struggling student and painter who learned the importance of acquiring a command of drawing in contrast to his intuitive approach to color, all adding up to the masterpieces of portraiture and landscape so loved by museum-goers and collectors. The audience had a good time, but many of them (me) coveted the artworks and lamented (again, me) not having an Alex Katz hanging in their own living room.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
If someone asked you what your favorite song is, I am sure you would have an answer. You may have to say there are several and want to offer a favorite band or genre.
For me, I am particularly taken with “The Wheels on the Bus,” because it is a favorite of my grandson. It is also one he is singing to his new baby sister. Pediatricians tell new moms that singing to their newborn is one of the best ways to introduce language.
Prayers are songs. A particular tune connects us to the High Holidays or Sabbath service. Singing the words aloud is the delivery system for our prayers. As families gather on Friday night, they welcome the Sabbath with “Shalom Aleichem.” No matter where you may go in your travels, you will usually find something familiar in the prayers in synagogues around the world.
Music was used by the Daniel Pearl Foundation in response to the 2002 kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl by terrorists in Pakistan. The Foundation created Daniel Pearl World Music Days because of his love of music and asked people to remember him by sharing music during the month of October in honor of his birthday. You can post a concert or program to their calendar at www.danielpearlmusicdays.org.
Teams have their theme or fight song. Schools have their school song. Couples have “their song,” mine is Chicago’s “Color My World,” and Broadway musical numbers become ingrained in our culture as the lyrics become part of our lexicon. Radio stations have carved out music decades for their specialty, 50s, 90s, classics or a combination of it all, can be found at Sirius XM Radio. Public television brings us the groups of 50s and 60s for reunion concerts. Nostalgia floods our brains and the music transports us back to the days of when that song was new. We marvel at how well they can still hold the notes, and notice the changes as well. We are sad when singers announce farewell tours, recognizing that their health has impacted their ability to perform, or they just do not want to have to do it anymore.
Before there were television shows called “Name That Tune” or “Don’t Forget the Lyrics,” there was party game with a music theme. The next time you have a group together try it as an ice breaker. People are divided into teams and themes for the songs are announced. Groups compete to name them. The team naming the most songs wins. Song categories such as girl names, boy names, colors, geographic locations are all possibilities. Try playing without using the internet as a real challenge.
As we get close to the preparations for Passover for our family and group Seders, we will be checking to make sure we have the song sheets and Hagadahs for the family favorites. The inclusion of these traditional medleys, are all part of the experience. This is also the time to introduce something new. There are many songs with Pesach content written to the tune of a popular song. In our house, it is “The Ballad of the Four Sons,” which is sung to the tune of “My Darling Clementine,” that keeps its honored place after the Four Questions are sung.
Popular Hebrew songs find their way into the international audience. In the spring of 1967, “Jerusalem of Gold (Yerushalayim shel Zahav)” was written by Naomi Shemer, a musician and poet at the request of the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek for the Israeli Song Festival. After the Six Day War that June, it became an unofficial anthem, expressing how Jews felt after Jerusalem was reunified, whether they lived in Israel or the Diaspora.
If Israel has sent a team to the Olympic Games we hope that we will hear “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem played on this international stage. We were angry to learn that Israelis at a competition held in Abu Dabi, UAE, were not treated equally. Tal Flicker, the winner of a gold medal in Judo, received his medal without the flag of Israel raised or “Hatikvah” played, but the world saw him singing it to himself on the podium.
Please share how music has impacted your life. You can reach us at the B’nai B’rith Center for Jewish Identity at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rhonda Love is the Vice President of Programming for B'nai B'rith International. She is Director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity. She served as the Program Director of the former District One of B'nai B'rith. In 2002 she received recognition by B'nai brith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. This June will mark her 38th anniversary at B'nai B'rith. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
Arguably the most readily identifiable and popular artist of the 20th century, Marc Chagall was a man of astounding versatility. Born in 1887 in Vitebsk, Russia, he grew up and gravitated to his chosen profession during an era that celebrated the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—stage projects in which music, dance, drama, poetry and the visual arts harmoniously combined to present a more profound experience. One of his St. Petersburg teachers, Leon Bakst, was another Jewish master whose Art Nouveau sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes transformed the world of dance in the years before World War I. It would not be until after 1918, in Soviet Russia, that Bakst’s student would become involved with the Yiddish theatre, where he developed yet another aspect of his genius that would continue to flower until the end of his life.
This season, events on two continents have been inspired by Chagall’s biography and creative vision. Hailed as the winner of the annual Carol Tambor Foundation’s Best of Edinburgh Award at this year’s Fringe Festival in August is “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” written by Daniel Jamieson, a co-production staged by Cornwall’s experimental Kneehigh Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic.
Incorporating expressive movement and dance, as well as Ian Ross’ music and songs orchestrated for an onstage band, this multi-disciplined work depicts both the romance of Marc and Bella, the woman who became his muse and the subject of many of his masterpieces, and the cultural roots that sired the artist’s unique perception. Despite the poverty, bleakness and violence of the shetl, the horror of World War I, and finally, the turmoil and suffering caused by the Russian Revolution, the artist forged an alternate reality, a joyous fantasy that continues to affect the visual and performing arts. “Flying Lovers’” sets, costumes and cast enervate Chagall’s dream world while the cruelty of real life is always at hand. The play’s final scene depicts Chagall’s response to Bella’s death in 1944. Acclaimed by critics and audiences, “Flying Lovers” is touring the United Kingdom through the spring of 2018, and will open in New York, probably later next year.
On view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until Jan. 7, 2018, is the first exhibit focusing on Chagall’s later stage works. Curated by Stephanie Barron, with an installation designed by LACMA’s artist-in-residence, an innovative opera director and set designer Yuval Sharon, “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” surveys the Russian master’s involvement with ballet and opera spanning the decades initiated by his arrival in New York from Nazi-occupied France, and continuing through 1967.
On display are films, studies and sketches, as well as the original costumes, sets and backdrops from four Chagall productions: “Aleko,” danced in 1942 by the company now known as the New York City Ballet; famed impresario Sol Hurok’s 1945 revival of Stravinsky’s “Firebird;” the 1956 Paris Opera staging of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” ballet, and the artist’s beloved treatment of “The Magic Flute” which debuted at the Met Opera during its first Lincoln Center season
Visitors will also be able to see Chagall’s paintings and drawings focusing on the subject of theatre, furthering enhancing their understanding of his creative process, and the significance of the performing arts within the context of his oeuvre.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, Click Here
Of all art forms, it is perhaps opera that provides the richest experience for its audience. From start to finish, staging an opera requires the participation of composers and writers, musicians adept at revealing emotional states and motivations using both their voices and their bodies, instrumentalists, choreographers, dancers, and artists capable of creating build sets, costumes and special effects that enhance the meaning of the score, as well as the message behind the story and text, its libretto.
Gaining popularity in the 18th century, opera developed as its venue changed from productions staged in private for the wealthy, to a public venue, the opera house, where it gained popularity, as legions of devotees, attended performances in theaters throughout Europe. In the United States, and in South America, opera companies toured through large cities, and even in far way away outposts like mining and logging camps. During the 19th century, the Jewish opera and operetta composers were often household names, celebrated throughout the world.
Today, those who are still drawn into this world by Giuseppe Verdi’s dramatic and robust music and poignant narratives will quickly recognize the similarities between his works and those of the now largely forgotten, but thrilling and beautiful operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), the most famous composer of his time, whose tremendously difficult music can only be sung by performers at the top of their game. While his operas, including “Les Huguenots,” “Le Prophète” and “L’Africaine,” are no longer part of the standard repertory, Meyerbeer’s reputation is enjoying a revival, in part due to a new CD of scenes and arias in French, German and Italian recorded by the internationally known soprano, Diana Damrau.
While others converted to achieve success, Meyerbeer, born Jacob Beer near Berlin to a wealthy banking family, remained true to his faith, despite the anti-Semitism he encountered throughout his career. Influenced by Gioachino Rossini and other early 19th century masters, he went on to write the scores to dozens of works, whose libretti, created by important playwrights of the era, often draw on historical incident. In most of his operas, Meyerbeer’s protagonists are tragically affected by prejudice and persecution. Αs the conductor Leon Botstein has commented “he keeps the audience on edge…by not releasing them from the fact that they are half on stage and half in their seats,” meaning that the dramatic events they are viewing mirror the conditions of our own century. This observation aside, Meyerbeer’s lush, beautifully orchestrated instrumentals and thrilling and dramatic arias will be the main attractions for new devotees.
A genre which is continually evolving, operas about recent history are being created by a new generation of men and women who are attracted by what it can convey, and impart relevance to those who connect with it. Scheduled for its world premiere by Denver’s Opera Colorado, in Jan. 2018, Gerald Cohen’s “Steal a Pencil for Me,” inspired by the real life love story of Dutch Holocaust survivors, is set in the Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Cohen, whose previous vocal and instrumental output has been honored with the Cantors Assembly’s Max Wohlberg Award for distinguished achievement in the field of Jewish composition, is also a celebrated cantor. “Steal a Pencil for Me” will be staged in New York, at both the Morgan Library on April 23, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary on April 26, where Cohen will take part in a discussion with composer Laura Kaminsky, whose opera “As One,” deals with transgender issues.
More than a dozen years ago, William Kentridge's “9 Drawings for Projection,” a series of highly personal animated films focusing on South African society under apartheid, was screened for audiences in museums around the world. It was then that the artist, working since the 1990s, rose to international fame. Today, he continues to demonstrate his genius through multi-disciplined projects, many of which incorporate music, dance, poetry and drama.
Born in 1955, Kentridge was the son of Johannesburg lawyers who devoted their lives to fighting for the rights of victims brutalized by South Africa’s system of segregation. Later on, Kentridge and his wife, a physician, became activists who placed themselves in great danger by taking in and offering medical assistance to men and women hiding from the police. The artist’s own experiences are at the heart of his imagery; his Jewish heritage and values are implicit, but certainly perceived, and ever present. A printer, filmmaker, poet, dramatist and stage director, Kentridge has been influenced by wide variety of sources, including Javanese shadow puppet theater, German Expressionism, 19th century medical illustration and non-traditional art like graffiti.
Projects completed within the last two years have touched the lives of millions. In late 2015, Kentridge’s Metropolitan Opera staging of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” plunged audiences into Weimar, Germany’s nightmarish decadence. Garish color, skewed sets and crass pantomime revealed the persona of the opera’s central character, a prostitute, while projected visuals—period currency, newspapers with prophetic headlines, photos of world leaders, and the artist’s own animations, drawn and then erased before the viewer’s eyes—distilled the essence of a world on the verge of cataclysm. A finishing, and most frightening touch, was the box-like, cartoonish mask encasing the head of the principal dancer.
This year, Kentridge executed a site specific work, on view 24 hours a day, which is intended to draw attention to the neglected and polluted condition of the Tiber River and its environs. In the 1640 feet long “Triumphs and Laments,” silhouettes of Rome’s military leaders, political despots from ancient times to the presentand the people they have conquered, exploited and enslaved, parade silently across the high stone river embankment. The process was unique; the monumental figures were blasted out of the biological detritus and garbage that has accumulated on these natural walls. Without conservation, the figures will be overtaken by more growth, and will eventually disappear.
Kentridge’s world is not all gritty. Only recently, elegance has prevailed as the famed men’s haberdasher, Ermenegildo Zegna (EZ), unveiled Kentridge’s new tapestry, “Dare/Avere” (Credit/Debit), commissioned for its beautifully designed New Bond Street, London, location. Inspired by documents in the store’s archival holdings, the artist’s design brings together attributes which distill EZ’s 106 year history: an antique Italian map, an old accounting ledger referencing the work’s title, a sewing machine, the store’s trademark label. In characteristic Kentridge style, the dapper silhouette of Ermenegildo, who founded this family business, makes his entrance as part of the foreground procession.
Slated to receive a stipend of $625,000 over the next five years, Josh Kun is a cultural historian who was selected as one of 23 new MacArthur Fellows announced in September. Kun is a brilliant academic, journalist and NPR broadcaster who has mounted exhibits at museums, including the Getty Foundation and the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art. The 46-year-old scholar is based at the University of Southern California, where he teaches at the Annenberg School of Communications and serves as director of the Popular Music Project at the school’s Norman Lear Center.
Kun envisions his hometown of Los Angeles—and America as a whole—as a tapestry whose rich and varied coloristic shadings in the visual, performing and culinary arts result from the fusion of his city’s multicultural heritage. Describing his publications including the 2006 “Audiotopia,” a study of Jewish, Latino and African-American multi-cultural music and “You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl” (2008), exploring the iconography of the covers of over 400 Jewish music recordings, the MacArthur Foundation states that Kun, “brings to life forgotten historical narratives through finely grained analyses of material and sonic manifestations of popular culture.”
Much of this “sonic manifestation” has been realized through Kun’s efforts as one of the founders of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, named for the composer of “Hava Nagila” and sponsored by “Reboot,” an organization dedicated to contemporary Jewish living. With a mission dedicated to the rediscovery and reassessment of niche music including the Latin-Jewish music craze of the 1950s, unknown to generations. Restoring classic recordings including “Mazel Tov,” “Mis Amigos” on DVD, the Society also assembles and produces new DVDs, including “Black Sabbath,” a selection of Yiddish songs, prayers and chants performed by African American artists from Cab Calloway to Aretha Franklin. Another release includes music by Black composers inspired by and incorporating Jewish melodies and liturgical elements.
The Society also partners with other institutions in presenting concerts, producing documentaries, and even opening a pop-up Jewish record store in San Francisco. Visitors to the Idelsohn web page are able to read about the men and women associated with the genre’s evolution. They can also access digitized versions of songs like “It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba,” a title which certainly distills the essence of Kun’s passions, not to mention providing a little kitschy and light-hearted whimsy.
Fittingly appropriating the jargon associated with sound engineering, Kun said: “I strive to be a scholar who crossfades (to make an image or sound gradually emerge on top of another which is, conversely, fading into silence) disciplines, who slides between and creates conversations between multiple publics, who diligently works with archives in order to animate them in new ways, and who follows historical and critical clues to excavate and learn from points of intersection.”
Reinventing the cultural landscape of history through an innovative approach and thinking outside of the box is not relegated to the domain of younger scholars. Hailed as a “splendid” book “seething with ideas” by The New York Times, and ranking high on its list of recommended nonfiction is “The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through its Portraits.” Simon Schama, a noted English art historian, is best remembered by American audiences as the writer and narrator of the 2014 PBS documentary series “The Story of the Jews.” His new book was written as a compendium for a 2015 English television show that he hosted at the National Portrait Gallery. The book is organized thematically, focusing on paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphics and photos of men and women from all walks of life—from Queen Victoria and Sir Winston Churchill to Hogarth’s memorable panoplies of 18th century urban dandies and criminals—whose depictions became synonymous with their deeds, and determined the way they would be treated by posterity. Assessing the often primal and voyeuristic immediacy of modern portraits and self-portraits of icons like John Lennon or Lucien Freud, Schama provides an analysis of the contemporary viewer in a nutshell: “we come into the world wide-eyed, ready to stare.”
Art critic Benjamin Binstock writes that Simon Schama is today known for his books on history and culture which display his trademark “sparkling prose and… brilliant capacity to synthesize information.” Born in London to immigrant parents, Schama studied the Talmud as a teenager, and went on to receive his degrees at the University of Cambridge. His award-winning publications include “Citizens,” a history of the French Revolution, “Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel” and “Landscape and Memory.” Introducing new audiences to the visual arts and history through his radio and television broadcasts in Europe and the United States, Schama received the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) from Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.
Who isn’t a Mayim Bialik fan? It’s tough not to be impressed by a woman whose deftly deadpan antics as The Big Bang Theory’s Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, a Ph.D. neuroscientist, are informed by her real life education as a Ph.D. neuroscientist.
To learn more about her, legions of devotees—seemingly of all demographics and faiths--are logging on to her new website Groknation.com, a name referencing the 1960s cult science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Bialik writes about all aspects of her multi-layered life, from her Jewish background and love of Israel, to parenting, the arts, and her special vegan diet.
Readers may be surprised by the frankness of Bialik’s posts, the most recent focusing on the ways in which her adherence to Jewish ritual became a source of comfort after her father’s death:
“Life goes on; it has to. But saying Kaddish every day has allowed me to step out of the ‘life goes on’ part of my day to enter a sanctuary (literally!) where I again am a mourner, and I feel again that life can’t go on because it’s OK to feel that way. It’s healthy to hold that tension in your brain. Grief is dissecting life going on from life not going on again and again.”
And… no, Bialik will not divulge anything about Amy’s response to Sheldon’s Big Bang proposal on the site—unless you don’t like to laugh, you’ll just have to catch the season premiere.
Join the crowds coming downtown to New York’s glitzy new Whitney Museum of American Art for a look at 29 year old Rachel Rose’s prize-winning works during her solo show from Oct. 2, 2015 to Feb. 7, 2016 in its Kaufman Gallery, where her installation “will physically engage with the architecture of the museum’s new building.”
Educated at Columbia, Yale and London’s Courtauld Institute of Art as an art historian and painter, Rose became known for using innovative materials like gel and transparent plastic paper to produce brilliantly colored, glistening forms suggestive of biological organisms or marine animals.
Fusing the conceptual and the sensual, her critically acclaimed videos, including A Minute Ago and Sitting Feeding Sleeping, are thoroughly original constructions bringing together film clips--from sources including YouTube, vintage movies and the artist’s own footage of zoo animals--that address big questions about life and death, and explore the sometimes uneasy relationships between nature, culture and advanced technology.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
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