Boston Musica Viva opens with a mesmerizing program of klezmer music

September 29, 2014 at 11:53 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Composer Eitan Steinberg and singer Etty BenZaken were featured in Boston Musica Viva’s program Saturday night.

It began with a whisper. Vocalist Etty BenZaken, with her hands stretched outwards, murmured into the microphone as if in prayer. The only audible sounds were the gentle clicking of her tongue and smacking of her lips.

Eitan Steinberg’s Assembly of Souls, heard in its world premiere by Boston Musica Viva at the Tsai Performance Center Saturday night, is a powerful and mesmerizing work. It was just one piece in an enriching program of music drawn from broadly Jewish cultural themes and a specifically klezmer idiom. Five works in all captured the melancholy and energetic strains of the popular genre. And the three works by Steinberg heard that night set much of the evening’s reverent yet celebratory tone.

The Israeli composer has a unique musical voice. His works in recent years have drawn upon broad cultural sources and early music styles. Much of that is evident in Assembly of Souls, which draws upon both Hebraic and Arabic music and texts. Composed this past summer during the violence that erupted between Israel and Palestine, the work is a timely and nonpolitical look into, as Steinberg himself noted, “our high moral potential and our destructive evil potential.”

The music is hypnotic. Though the lyrics move rapidly, the vocal lines seem to flow at a glacial pace, taking time to hover on a single note. As the work progressed Saturday night, BenZaken’s voice swelled into chants of rapturous intensity, taking on subtle shakes that imbued the music with a hint of sadness. The accompanying klezmer-like compendium of strings, winds, accordion, piano, and percussion weave a supple texture of resonant and interlocking strands. The effect is meditative but never static. Vocalist and ensemble gave a mournful and prayerful rendering of the music with director Richard Pittman leading a delicate reading. Most moving was the penultimate section, a wordless vocal lament.

If Assembly of Souls captured the inner workings of the human spirit, then Steinberg’s Joy caught it at its most exuberant. The piece, a recent project by Steinberg and BenZaken (the two are married) for their inter-cultural ensemble Modalius, is a collection of five Jewish love and wedding songs from different Eurasian regions. Heard together, the songs, which involve the stirring melismas of Syrian Jewish chant to the foot-stomping percussive bursts of Russian klezmorim, form a rich tonal and rhythmic tapestry. Especially poignant was the third of the set, “A Sar Savza,” a folk song of the Caucasus Jews, where flutist Ann Bobo arched a beautiful line to meld with BenZaken’s vocalise.

The evening began with Play, Klezmorim, Play, Steinberg’s arrangement of two Russian Yiddish folk songs for clarinet and chamber ensemble. In the first of the set, a free, searching phrase in the clarinet and cello is broken by bone-rattling piano chords, which leads the music into frenzied passages. In a similar style, the second piece accelerates from deliberate beats driven by the steady clickety-clack of the percussion. The BMV musicians played both with crisp energy. Clarinetist William Kirkley floated his melodies with round tone while generally avoiding the slides and wails so characteristic of klezmer music.

That Ashkenazi musical tradition, in the hands of many a contemporary composer, fused an ethnic musical language with the rhythmic punch of American jazz. David Schiff’s Divertimento from Gimpel the Fool is one such piece. Drawn from his 1979 opera, the four movements of the Divertimento are marked for their chromatic melodic shading and pulsating energy.

With some attention here given to the twists and turns of the clarinet part, Kirkley found the melancholy that lies just below the work’s surface. Cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws and violinist Gabriela Diaz answered with silvery strands of melody. Pianist Geoffrey Burleson performed the rippling phrases that pepper the work with dexterity.

Rounding out the program was a rare gem by Aaron Copland. The piano trio Vitebsk is Copland’s only work to draw upon his Jewish background. Composed in 1929, it is an intense, chord-grinding work. Strings and piano trade fragmented statements of Jewish melody, a riff on a tune S. Ansky used in his play The Dybbuk. The resulting harmony, which was shocking for its time, stacks quarter tones upon a cluster of major and minor triads. This jarring music eventually unravels into a sizzling dance.

Diaz, Müller-Szeraws, and Burleson gave the work a superb reading. The trio dug in with fire and focus for a forceful opening. The yearning theme that unwound from the jagged sonorities sounded with an amber tone in the strings. But most impressive was the frenzied dance, where the musical lines darted about like brushstrokes in a Chagall painting. The trio played all with aplomb.

Boston Musica Viva’s next program will feature works by Richard and Deborah Cornell, Jalbert, Child, and Berio, with mezzo-soprano Krista River 8 p.m. November 22 at the Tsai Performance Center.

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