Diasporic Ecstasy: The 25th Jewish Music Festival Fetes a Quarter Century of Jewish Creativity with Premiere Performances and Playful Reflection
From Berlin to Buenos Aires, from the melodies that bring ecstasy, to cool jazz and hot klezmer, the 25th Jewish Music Festival has embraced the entire multifaceted world of Jewish experience and let it sing.
The Festival captured an elderly Ukrainian Yiddish singer's work on the fly and inspired a new generation of artists. It produced a staged reading of the only 19th-century opera on Jewish themes (La Juive), and a Czech children's opera (Brundibar) produced by the inmates of the Jewish concentration camp at Terezin. It's seen world-premiere collaborations, and even a marriage proposal on stage.
Now celebrating its twenty-fifth year, this year's Jewish Music Festival (March 20-29, 2010 and July, 2010) explores the sacred resonances of world Jewish music at venues mostly in downtown Berkeley in March and downtown San Francisco in July, with West Coast and US premiere performances by Diaspora Redux, Lorin Sklamberg, and Susan McKeown. The celebration continues in July, when the Festival will present several multimedia arts events to mark its quarter century, including the world premiere of a JMF commissioned piece, Dan Plonsey's Bar Mitzvah.
We're living in a time when people are looking for answers in different places," reflects Eleanor Shapiro, festival director. The Jewish Music Festival this year focuses on a mix of the sacred and secular. Our attitude is that in this economy, we need all the help we can get; whether it be Jewish and Muslim mystical music and dance, or Irish and Jewish songs about love, death, betrayal, and the demon drink. Musical salvation can also come through an ensemble mix of Jewish New York, Berlin and Buenos Aires, thanks to Diaspora Redux."
The great riches of song and its ability to induce contemplation and ecstasy lie at the heart of Sacred Jewish and Muslim Music of the Middle East with the Yuval Ron Ensemble including Mevlavi Dervish Aziz (March 20), which brings together the joyous music and movement of a whirling dervish, Armenian Orthodox melodies, and Jewish traditions. Under the thoughtful direction of Israeli composer Yuval Ron, who recently scored the Oscar-winning film West Bank Story, the group unites as Sufi feet fly and Ron's oud evokes the universal ache of human experience.
The heady mix of sacred and profane is also celebrated with Saints and Tzadiks (March 29; West Coast premiere), when acclaimed Klezmatics singer Lorin Sklamberg and stunning vocalist Susan McKeown reveal the unexpected ties between Jewish and Irish songs. Saints and Tzadiks touches the real oppression faced by both groups, and the very rich culture of words and music they developed in defense," Shapiro explains.
Festival goers can also discover bliss the old-fashioned way: by learning niggunim, the melodies used in Hassidic tradition to achieve an ecstatic state, from Klezmatics members Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg at an open Friday night service and participatory performance of Zmiros (March 26). But watch out: This religious music can get as wild and passionate as any rave. It's a continuation of using music to reach a sacred space. The melodies themselves are transformative. And I can't think of anybody better to learn them from than Frank and Lorin," Shapiro smiles, It can be dangerous. I once broke a glass singing with them by pounding it too hard as we sang around a table."
Mapping unexpected corners of the diasporic experience has long been part of the Festival's mission. Diaspora Redux (March 27; American premiere), a Berlin-based project led by Brave Old World's Alan Bern, captures its sonic essence, with an innovative blend of jazz, tango, klezmer, and new music. Bern has gathered top players from vital centers of Jewish culture, cities like Berlin, New York, and Buenos Aires," notes Shapiro. They come of out of secular traditions, but have this amazing improvisational spirit that reaches a different kind of ecstatic state." Musicians can explore the role of improvisation in new Jewish music themselves during a master class with Bern and other members of Diaspora Redux (March 28).
Festival goers will also get an opportunity to hear a novel take on klezmer thanks to the rich acoustic arrangements of Klezmer Buenos Aires (March 29). Founded by two self-taught, innately talented musicians with roots in Eastern Europe, the duo has spent decades perfecting their playful approach to tango, klezmer, folk, and jazz on a staggering array of unusual instruments. I have seen them in three different countries and every time they shock everybody out of their seats. I like to take bets on how many encores theyll get," laughs Shapiro. I've never seen an audience let them play fewer than three or four."
While savoring sacred resonances from across the diaspora, this year's Festival also looks back to where the most recent secular Jewish music revival unexpectedly took off. Almost dying out after World War II, Eastern European Jewish folk music or klezmer, got a new lease on life in the coffeehouses and libraries of 1970s Berkeley. Though the klezmer revival was going on at roughly the same time on both coasts, the Klezmorim, here in Berkeley, were the first," says Shapiro. I've done the research."
The Festival does just that, with a lively panel discussion, Back to the Roots: Notions of Jewish Music Revival, featuring international Jewish music scholars (March 14) and by holding the Festival in a storied venue, the Freight and Salvage Coffee House. After ten years, the most famous folk venue west of Chicago is in a new green building resonant with wood salvaged from the building's last incarnation. The Freight and Salvage has been the heart of the folk scene for thirty years," Shapiro says, and now it's got a wonderful space, with gorgeous sound and great accessibility. I can't think of a better place to hear our artists."
The Festival's anniversary party continues into the summer, with several groundbreaking events in July. Dan Plonsey's Bar Mitzvah, a Festival-commissioned performance piece by whimsical and idiosyncratic composer Dan Plonsey, will premiere at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Inspired by Babylonian lore, Jewlia Eisenberg of Charming Hostess will create a multi-media installation titled The Bowls Project at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The transcultural electronica of Watcha Clan, led by singer/dancer Sistah K, takes Berber, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi Jewish grooves into the 21st century via sounds conceived in Marseilles.
In this time of economic cutbacks, when everybody seems to be struggling, the Festival continues to showcase world-class performers from France, Germany, Argentina, and beyond. Our dedication to Jewish music as a genre and to introducing fantastic artists to the Bay Area is unwavering," says Shapiro. It's this commitment that has sustained us for twenty-five years, and that brings old and new audiences out every year."
In March, most Festival concerts will be held at the new Freight and Salvage Coffee House around the corner from the Downtown Berkeley BART station. In July, Festival events will take place at Yerba Buena Gardens, Center for the Arts and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco. See http://www.jewishmusicfestival.org/ for ongoing updates and ticket information. Tickets: 1-800-838-3006.