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March 17, 2015
David Krakauer

The 30-Year-Old Jewish Music Festival Will Take Its Final Bow

The Jewish Musical Festival, the first of its kind in the United States, is going out not with a whimper but with the kind of bang that has made it so popular over the past three decades.

Longtime director Ellie Shapiro is leaving, in order to focus on taking Jewish music to Poland.

Meanwhile, plans for the 30th anniversary celebration are in place. “The mandate for our festival is to showcase the world of Jewish music,” says Shapiro, “not just East European music but Jewish music in relation to other music around the world, from India to Mali—other cultures and other Jewish cultures.” To that end, this year’s Festival comprises a varied lineup that ranges from liturgical music to Yiddish barn dancing over the course of several weeks, at venues in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Shapiro points to particular highlights, among them the distinguished East Bay women’s chorus Kitka, specializing in East European music, which will honor local folk music legend Ronnie Gilbert (of the Weavers) on International Women’s Day; a rare Jewish-Muslim-Christian ensemble from Israel that integrates Middle Eastern music; bassoonist Paul Hanson’s commissioned piece, “Homecoming”; and a pop-up chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” sung by, Shapiro hopes, 200 audience members (“I experienced this at a festival in Toronto,” she says—“incredibly powerful!”).

It’s fitting that the Festival officially opens with the Klezmatics (March 5, New Parish, 1743 San Pablo Ave., Oakland), because it was the newly emerging klezmer groups like Klezmorim, and later the Klezmatics and others, that catalyzed interest in the genre and that in turn inspired the Festival. Klezmer has always been a fusion genre itself, points out Shapiro, influenced by the various locales of Jews in the diaspora. It almost died out due to the Holocaust. The Festival, which at its inception attracted 500 attendees, and at its peak drew 5,000, has grown along with the growing interest in Jewish music internationally.

The Grammy-winning Klezmatics, says Shapiro, are the Grateful Dead of Jewish music, staying alive creatively for 25 years—“They keep re-creating themselves!” She calls their music “wild, mystical, provocative and ecstatically danceable.”

Since 2006, this Festival has been the only such festival to commission new music. This year, Shapiro was approached by local, award-winning classical and improvisational bassoonist Paul Hanson with a compelling story: An accomplished jazz saxophonist as well as a bassonist, he’d spent four years in Japan as a musician with Cirque du Soleil. There, he’d had what he calls a “social epiphany”: a realization, which he wanted to put together through music, of “where I’m from and how I fit into the grand scheme of things.” Says Shapiro, “I felt so lucky. I’ve always wanted the Festival to be eclectic—classical to cantorial to cutting edge, to show the breadth of contemporary Jewish music.”

Hanson’s accordionist father was a member of the seminal Berkeley-based Klezmorim back in the day; his mother is a classical pianist. His grandparents were Jews from Russia who immigrated in the 1930s because of their interest in the civil rights movement. Hanson’s first instrument was the guitar, followed by the clarinet in fourth grade, the sax in sixth grade, the bassoon in tenth. He came up in the Berkeley High School jazz program and toured with his dad’s band in the early 1980s. He says that during his time in Japan he became acutely aware of his Berkeley roots and his “folkloric self.”

For his Jewish Music Festival commission, he will present 12 small pieces in two sets. “Harmony in East European music is fascinating and beautiful and lends itself to lots of things if you’re coming from a jazz perspective,” he muses, of his new composition, “Homecoming,” which draws upon the music of the klezmer revival that he grew up with as well as modern jazz. “The bassoon lends itself to soulful, melodic playing,” he elaborates, “and you find that in klezmer and Middle Eastern music. The bassoon, being an open-holed, double reed instrument has an old world sound—a bridge between old and new music.” (Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, March 11; Contemporary Jewish Museum, 735 Mission St., San Francisco, March 12.)

The Festival balances local favorites like Hanson, and Kitka, with groups from elsewhere. Among the latter is the Israeli group Diwan Saz (in Turkish, a diwan is a comfortable place to sit; saz is a stringed instrument), which features 14-year-old Bedouin singer Muhammed Gadir. “He has a voice like Caruso!” exults Shapiro. This performance is part of the group’s first U.S. tour. The show includes Arabic ballads, Jewish liturgical poems, Turkish folk songs and Rumi-inspired compositions. The seven performers play a variety of instruments and often sing in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Turkish and Persian. (First Congregational Church, 2501 Harrison St., Oakland, March 14.)

Among the local groups, the eight-woman ensemble Kitka is known for its repertoire of Balkan and Slavic choral music that features “stunning dissonances, asymmetric rhythms and lush harmonies,” boasts the Festival’s promotional materials. The group has a long history of participation in the Jewish Music Festival and was flattered, says executive director Shira Cion, to be invited to the 30th anniversary celebration. “We wondered what we could do that’s a combination of traditional and folk songs—both comfort food and cutting edge.”

On the “comfort food” side, they chose songs from their repertoire: “classic, familiar, beloved Eastern European Yiddish folksongs,” says Cion. They are also including a lamentation written (by Morris Rosenfeld and popularized in the 1960s by Ethel Raim and her group, the Pennywhistlers) in response to the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed immigrant garment workers in New York in 1911. Among other offerings on the Kitka lineup is a 15-minute set of excerpts from “I Will Remember Everything,” a piece the group recently commissioned from Seattle-based composer Eric Banks. Banks and Cion had connected over their mutual love of Silver Age Russian poetry and came up with the idea of a song cycle based on the poems of openly lesbian Russian poet Sophia Parnok, who’d been silenced during the Soviet era. She died at 48 in 1933. “She also experienced the full range of anti-Semitism that was rampant in her era,” points out Cion. Parnok dedicated eight separate poems to eight of her most cherished lovers; those poems form the libretto for what ended up as Banks’ 75-minute composition. Parnok loved to wear suits, says Cion, so the Kitka ensemble will don men’s attire for the concert.

Also on Kitka’s docket for the Festival are secular pieces from Georgia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Bosnia and Turkey; pieces by Meredith Monk that have Jewish themes (Monk’s East European Jewish ancestry influences a lot her work), specifically “Quarry,” a World War II labor camp story told symbolically through movement and music; “Jewish Storyteller-Dance-Dream” from Monk’s feature film “Book of Days,” about a medieval Jewish girl who has visions of the future; four pieces by Bulgarian Jewish composer and folk song collector Nickolay Kaufman; a set of songs by Ethel Raim (old Yiddish lullabies, a partisan anthem for World War II, a song from the Teamsters labor movement in New York and more).

Cion points to a connection between Raim and this year’s honoree, Ronnie Gilbert: both are part of the folk revival scene in America. “Ronnie’s been a Kitka fan for a really long time,” says Cion, “and she has a family background rich with Yiddish culture and music.” Gilbert requested a couple of Kitka’s songs as part of the tribute to her. (March 8, Freight and Salvage.)

Other performances include New York cantor Jack Mendelson singing Jewish liturgical music (March 7, Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit Dr., Oakland); a live performance prior to the official Festival opening, by the local New Yiddish theater, of the Yiddish-language musical (with supertitles) “Di Megileh,” which is a Purim story based on poems by Itzak Manger with music by Israeli composer Dov Seltzer, and with a cast that includes Traveling Jewish Theatre cofounder Naomi Newman (Feb. 26, 28 and March 1-3, Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St.,); dance workshops, in a variety of styles, led by Steve Weintraub (March 17-19, JCC East Bay); Sway Machinery, which veers from Afropop to Ashkenazi cantorial music (March 10, Leo’s Music Club, 5447 Telegraph Ave., Oakland); and the festival finale (March 22, JCC East Bay):Veretski Pass, a klezmer group that plays dance suites from the “old country (with the delightfully named Cookie Segelstein on violin and viola); dancing with Steve Weintraub and the Instant Klezmer Mandolin Orchestra; and the “Hallelujah” sing-along led by Conspiracy of Beards artistic director Daryl Henline.

March 5-22

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