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Music in the Mishkan presents a delightful vocal discovery

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Yesterday afternoon I made my first (long overdue) trip over to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in the Mission to attend one of the chamber music recitals in the Music in the Mishkan series organized by Randall Weiss. Violinist Weiss and his fellow instrumentalists in a group called The Bridge Players are the “house musicians” for these concerts. However, the major discovery yesterday afternoon was provided by special guest artist Sharon Bernstein, Cantor of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, who sang a selection of eight songs in Yiddish with both music and words by Mordechai Gebirtig while accompanying herself on piano.

Gebirtig’s name may be familiar for those who follow my national site. He was one of the composers included in the album Di Sheyne Milnerin: Schubert’s cycle of love forlorn retold in Yiddish song, which I reviewed at the beginning of last year. In fact he was represented on this album by a single song, “Reyzele,” which happened to be the last of the eight songs that Bernstein performed. Strictly speaking, it would probably be better to say that Gebirtig created folk music, rather than art song. Indeed, as a member of the Jewish Social Democratic Party in Galicia, Gebirtig is part of that long line of practitioners of folk music as music of protest; and on June 4, 1942 he was killed by the Nazis during the “Bloody Thursday” uprising in the Kraków Ghetto.

Musically, he was self-taught; and his specialty was a shepherd’s pipe. On the piano he could do little more than invent his melodies with one finger. Most likely Bernstein improvised her own accompaniment for the songs she sang. (On Di Sheyne Milnerin, pianist Alexander Knapp played a far more elaborate accompaniment arranged by Sholom Secunda.)

It is therefore unclear how much Gebirtig knew about repertoire. Nevertheless, listening to Bernstein’s performance, one sensed that he must have been at least aware of the nineteenth-century traditions of art song spanning all the way from Franz Schubert at the beginning of the century to Johannes Brahms at the end. Furthermore, while the texts that Bernstein sang all offered rich evocations of shtetl life, just as clear was the legacy of the German folk poetry collected in the Des Knaben Wunderhorn anthology.

Stylistically, Bernstein presented Gebirtig’s eight songs more as a folk singer than as a recitalist (or a cantor). She sang into a microphone while seated at the piano with a clear almost conversational tone of voice. Because the text sheet accompanying the program was only in English, she was particularly attentive to her Yiddish articulation, making it easy to follow the translations of the words she was singing. The result was definitely far from the usual chamber music offering, but it made for eight delightful discoveries.

If there was a hint of Schubert’s ghost hovering over the performance of these songs, his presence was affirmed in the second half of the program with his D. 929 piano trio in E-flat major. For this performance Weiss was joined by Victoria Ehrlich on cello and Marilyn Thompson on piano. D. 929 was composed in November of 1827 at the beginning of Schubert’s final year of life, a period during which he was prodigiously prolific and often astonishingly inventive. In this trio we encounter Schubert mastering longer durational scales through new approaches to prolongation.

Thus, what is most important about yesterday’s performance was how The Bridge Players rendered that scale manageable to the listener. Through their performance one appreciated the metaphor of a journey, during which Schubert wished to explore a variety of byways rather than finding the most efficient path to conclusion. All those digressions unfolded at a sufficiently brisk pace that the listener never felt that Schubert was playing out too much of a good thing. Personally, I could have done with a bit more dramatic tension, particularly in the second Andante con moto movement; but yesterday’s reading made perfect sense within its own aesthetic.

The program began with a performance of Paul Schoenfield’s three-movement “Café Music.” As I have previously observed, this piece is basically a memoir of the composer’s early days of playing with a jazz trio in the cocktail lounge at Murphy’s steakhouse in Minneapolis; but it is less a piece of nostalgia than a comic envisioning of what would happen when all three performers had consumed a bit too much of the bar’s offerings. Furthermore, because Schoenfield is also a Talmudic scholar, one encounters far more Yiddishkeit in his music than one might find from the usual bunch of lounge lizards.

The result might then be called a meticulous reconstruction of wild abandon. In that respect The Bridge Players managed to catch on to the meticulous side, but they were never wild enough. With the exception of one keyboard-long glissando, Thompson seemed far to wrapped up in the notes on the page to appreciate that she was supposed to be in the middle of a Looney Toons cartoon (or, as I have previously suggested, the Mos Eisley Cantina hosting a guest band of Muppets). Weiss and Ehrlich were a bit better at capturing the “Freylakh” spirit; but the performance as a whole could have benefitted a bit more from that sense of being on the brink of recklessness.

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