The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. James Loeffler.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2010. 288 pp.  ISBN 978-0-3001-3713-2

Reviewed by Simon MorrisonThe Most Musical Nation

This is a book about the struggle to preserve and promote the music of the Jewish enclaves in the Russian empire. St. Petersburg and Moscow dominate the framing chapters; the villages, or shtetls, of the Pale of Settlement the core. To tell the tale, James Loeffler draws on an enormous trove of documents gathered from libraries and archives in Russia, Israel, and the United States. Organizing the material must have been a challenge, but Loeffler prevailed to write an elegant, moving account of the effort to perform, in new arrangements, a repertoire threatened with extinction. Russian nationalism hampered the effort; revolution and war terminated it—with extreme prejudice.

In terms of writing, the best chapter is the first. It concerns the bittersweet career of Anton Rubinstein, and sets the context for the detailed description of the Jewish musical repertoires that follows. Loeffler offers a well-paced assessment of the chief events in Rubinstein’s complicated, multifaceted career: his founding of the Conservatory in St. Petersburg (his brother would do the same in Moscow); his Western European concert tours; his efforts to create non-nationalist “spiritual” operas (as riposte to Richard Wagner’s music dramas); and the political attacks that clouded the 1889 celebrations of his fifty years as a performer. Read the rest of this entry »

Solo Vocal Works on Jewish Themes: A Bibliography of Jewish Composers.  Kenneth Jaffe.  Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2011.  436 pages. ISBN 978-0-8108-6135-0

Reviewed by Joshua JacobsonSolo Vocal Works on Jewish Themes

Cantor Kenneth Jaffe’s publication represents the fruits of a twelve-year project, a compilation of “Solo Vocal Works on Jewish Themes.” The book comprises four sections. In the main part of the book the author presents an alphabetical list of composers. After each composer’s name he provides nationality, dates and places of birth and death, and a list of that composer’s works organized by genre, title, opus number, performing forces, duration, source of lyrics, publisher, duration, date of composition, first performance, recordings, and location of performance materials as appropriate. Then there are three cross-reference listings. The first is organized by theme, including text source (Bible, Mishna, etc.), various holidays, Ethnic Interest (an odd category that comprises mostly Sephardic songs), Fiction, Jewish Experience, Holocaust, Liturgy, Yiddish Theater, and Zionism. The other two lists are indices sorted by voice type and by title. At the very end are a bibliography and a listing of publishers and libraries. Read the rest of this entry »

Judeo-Caribbean Currents: Music of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curaçao. Gideon Zelermyer, hazzan; Raymond Goldstein, piano. Liner notes by Edwin Seroussi.  Anthology of Music Traditions in Israel 22. Jerusalem:  Jewish Music Research Centre, 2009.

Reviewed by Rebecca S. Miller

The United Netherlands-Portuguese Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel in Curaçao is the oldest Jewish congregation in the Western hemisphere. Formally established in 1654 in the walled city of Willemstad, the synagogue served as a place of worship for the first Portuguese Jewish immigrants who arrived in Curaçao from Amsterdam.  This population—likely descendants of the original Sephardic Jewish population that left the Iberian peninsula during the Inquisition—was later joined by Jews emigrating from Brazil and elsewhere; by 1800, there were nearly 2000 Jews in Curaçao, comprising fully half the white population of this southern Caribbean island.  In 1864, a schism resulted in the establishment of a second congregation—Temple Emanuel—that has the distinction of being what Edwin Seroussi describes as “the first overtly Reform Sephardic congregation ever” (12).  A century later, this ideological split was resolved and, in 1964, the two were reunited; today, the United Netherlands Portuguese Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is affiliated with the American Jewish Reconstructionist movement. Read the rest of this entry »

The Socalled Movie (2010).  Dir. Garry Beitel.  Prod, Barry Lazar (reFrame Films) & Ravida Din (The National Film Board of Canada). 86 min.

Reviewed by Louis KaplanThe Socalled Movie

In dispensing with the pretext of a continuous narrative and dividing his biopic on Josh Dolgin into eighteen parts to create a fragmented and kaleidoscopic portrait of this multi-faceted Montreal musician, Garry Beitel’s The Socalled Movie has made a symbolic statement that registers in a Jewish key.  For the structure of the film signals in Jewish numerological terms (where Chai/Life = 18) that it is the superabundance of life itself with all of its gusto and exuberance that this project seeks to capture in documenting the on- and off-stage antics of its restless musical subject.  Tracking Dolgin at home and on tour, the film illustrates how he has blended the genres of klezmer, hip hop, and funk into a potent and often rambunctious mix. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Mahler:  German Culture and Jewish Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Carl Niekerk.  Rochester, NY:  Camden House, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-5711-3467-7

Reviewed by John J. SheinbaumReading Mahler

For a composer once considered to be on the margins of the Germanic symphonic tradition, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) now enjoys an enormous discography, an ever-expanding corpus of biographical and musicological scholarship, and nothing short of a cult of followers ready to discuss and debate any detail that might suggest new paths to interpreting his lengthy and emotionally involving works.[1]  Carl Niekerk’s Reading Mahler is a notable addition to the composer’s bibliography because it counters conventional images of Mahler as a “nostalgic modernist” or a “neoromanticist” derived from the first-person recollections of the composer’s wife, Alma, and the conductor Bruno Walter. Niekerk instead places Mahler at the head of the “avant-garde” generation of composers that followed (212).  This is a Mahler concerned with nothing less than “reinventing the German cultural tradition” in a way distinct from the nationalist models most closely associated with the influential anti-Semitic opera composer Richard Wagner (218).  For Niekerk, then, Mahler’s “Jewishness is of importance, even though he said little about it in public” (12), and even though it plays little more than a background role in philosopher Theodor Adorno’s essential monograph on the composer.[2]  His reconsideration of Mahler thus encompasses much more than musical issues per se.  Niekerk aims to place Mahler securely within the intellectual context of his time by focusing on the texts that may have been formative in his thinking, and that often played direct roles in the construction of his songs and symphonies. Read the rest of this entry »

The Naming. Galeet Dardashti. Galeet Dardashti, 2010.

Reviewed by Sarah Imhoff

In the Genesis creation account God speaks and the world springs into existence, light and dark, water and sky, earth and seas. The voice is coextensive with creation. Galeet Dardashti’s new recording The Naming can claim no such miraculous speech acts, but her music recalls both the creative power of the voice and a near-divine ability to bring women to life.

Dardashti’s Persian-Jewish heritage and academic training come together in a beautiful and yet theologically provocative recording. The music is at once traditional and radical: the first song begins with the prayer for laying tefillin but in a woman’s voice, while “Dinah” incorporates a traditional Moroccan piyyut, and “Sarah/Hagar” includes recent Hebrew and Arabic headlines about political violence. At times Dardashti employs a Mizrahi cantorial style, to which her rich voice brings depth and emotion. Even her own personal lineage leaves an imprint on the sound: her father, cantor Farid Dardashti, sings in “Endora.” Perhaps the most striking moments in the recording, however, are in the songs composed of biblical verses. Their radical character lies not simply in the verses themselves, but rather in Dardashti’s midrashic construction of the songs: the presence, absence, order, and juxtaposition of verses can ultimately be read as bold reinterpretations of the power, the agency, and the simple humanity of the biblical women. Read the rest of this entry »

Working With Bernstein: A Memoir. Jack Gottlieb.  New York: Amadeus Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-5746-7186-5

Reviewed by Barry Seldes Working with Bernstein

In 1958, Leonard Bernstein, recently appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, hired as his assistant Jack Gottlieb, a composer with a Ph.D dissertation on Bernstein’s music.  Gottlieb’s job description seemed indeterminate: from vetter of compositions sent to Bernstein for potential performance to general “gopher.” In this latter capacity, Gottlieb traveled the globe with the peripatetic maestro, seeing to Bernstein’s toiletries, packing his bags, managing transportation, and otherwise working hard but, in Bernstein’s company, having a thoroughly good time.  Apparently Gottlieb performed splendidly, and, save for four years when he took a position teaching composition, he remained at Bernstein’s side until Bernstein’s death in 1990. No doubt, the friendship that ensued was cemented by shared Jewish faith and Gottlieb’s extraordinary competence in understanding Bernstein’s music. Indeed, Bernstein would come to entrust Gottlieb with writing the program notes and commentaries to accompany the published scores, recordings and performances of Bernstein’s own music. Now Gottlieb, some twenty years after Bernstein’s death, has written this work, Part I of which is a memoir of his experiences with Bernstein, and Part II of which contains his collected program notes and commentaries. Read the rest of this entry »

The Schenker Project: Culture, Race and Music Theory in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.  Nicolas Cook.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007. xi + 355 pp.  ISBN 978-0-1997-4429-9

Reviewed by Alison Rose

The cultural developments of fin-de-siècle Vienna have been the subject of several historical monographs. Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna, originally published in 1973, was followed by Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture in 1980. Works by Marsha Rozenblit, Steven Beller, and Robert Wistrich focused attention on the Jews of Vienna, emphasizing the importance of the Jewish contribution to Viennese culture. One thing that these works hold in common is their inclusion of Viennese Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, and omission of his contemporary, Viennese Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker.  This is all the more perplexing when one considers how influential Schenkerian theory was to become in the United States. Schenker, unlike Schoenberg, did not convert to Christianity: he remained a loyal (if concealed) Jew throughout his life, and he somewhat oddly seems to have embraced both his Jewishness and German nationalism.  Nicolas Cook’s book provides some hints as to how this worldview developed, and more importantly, it restores Schenker to his rightful place in fin-de-siècle Viennese culture. However, the book falls short of accounting for the rather peculiar omission of Schenker from most previous studies on the period. Read the rest of this entry »

If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.  Mick Moloney. Compass Records, 2009.

Reviewed by Stephen WattIf it Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews

I first enjoyed Mick Moloney and The Green Fields of America some twenty years ago at a national meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies.  Moloney, a talented musician-singer and folklorist who is also a Professor of Music and Irish Studies at New York University, formed the group in the later 1970s and, at least in my memory of the evening, offered a program in which traditional reels, jigs, and step dancing predominated.  In the past few years, however, Moloney’s considerable energies have been directed more specifically at America’s Tin Pan Alley era, a time in which Irish and Jewish songwriters—separately and collaboratively—created a popular music expressive of some of the moment’s most pervasive social issues: the struggles of newly arrived immigrants, their often tense internal negotiations between assimilation and nostalgia, and the specter of World War I.  Moloney’s earlier album McNally’s Row of Flats (Compass, 2006) treats the highly successful collaboration of Edward Harrigan and David Braham; thus, If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews might be regarded as a further iteration of Moloney’s fascination with American popular music between 1880 and 1920. Read the rest of this entry »

Herencia Judía. Benjamin Lapidus. Tresero Productions, 2008.

Timba Talmud. Roberto Rodriguez/Sexteto Rodriguez. Tzadik, 2009.

Reviewed by Lillian WohlTimba Talmud

Herencia Judía and Timba Talmud are recordings that fuse Afro-Caribbean (mainly Cuban) and Jewish (Ashkenazic and Sephardic) traditions. While Roberto Rodriguez/Sexteto Rodriguez’s compilation is largely dance music derived from popular Cuban and klezmer repertoire to be enjoyed in the home or in secular engagements, Lapidus’s album takes on the difficult task of arranging piyyutim (paraliturgical hymns) and texts from Jewish holidays with secular and religious musics of the Spanish Caribbean. Lapidus and Rodriguez’s impressions of musical encounter are presented as audiotopias—ideological spaces that offer the listener and/or the musician new maps for re-imagining the present social world.[1] They are spaces with no real place where ideological contradictions and conflicts may coexist.[2] Yet, the proliferation of a variety of Cuban musical idioms such as rumba, son, cha-cha-chá, mambo, and comparsa assure a focus on Cuban sound on both albums. Ultimately, by playing with musical materials from Afro-Caribbean, Cuban, and Jewish traditions, both Lapidus and Rodriguez must contend with the difficulties of finding a coherent musical point of view. In this respect, Rodriguez more successfully streamlines his vision, maintaining a focus on (predominantly) popular styles and images in comparison to Lapidus, whose strategy can feel almost overwhelmingly eclectic at times. Read the rest of this entry »