Yiddish Cabaret Echoes In Fresh Form And Spirit Of String Quartet Fare

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The Jerusalem Quartet with soprano Hila Baggio, from left: Alexander Pavlovsky, violin; Baggio; Sergei Bresler, violin; Ori Kam, viola; Kyril Zlotnikov, cello. (Courtesy of Vancouver Recital Society)

VANCOUVER — In a nuanced program featuring a work based on cabaret-inspired songs by Ukrainian-born composer Leonid Arkadievich Desyatnikov, the Jerusalem Quartet and guest artist Israeli soprano Hila Baggio performed for the Vancouver Recital Society in Temple Sholom on May 7.

Normally the recital society offers concerts either in the Vancouver Playhouse or the much larger Orpheum Theatre. Given a paucity of available venues for the date the Jerusalem could come to town, the best available option seemed to use the suburban Temple Sholom. This turned out to be a good space for chamber music, with decent sound and agreeable intimacy.

The Jerusalem Quartet has visited Vancouver for years, memorably for a rendition of the entire Shostakovich string quartet cycle back in 2006. The roots of the current program spring from a CD project for harmonia mundi. The quartet chose Yiddish cabaret songs from Poland between the wars, which were then set by Desyatnikov; these were flanked by the Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923) by Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942) and the Second String Quartet (1933) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957). The Jerusalem Quartet is touring North America, but Vancouver is so far the only locale to hear the cabaret project live.

Schulhoff’s Five Pieces consciously reject the gravitas of a traditional string quartet. Rather, they are a sort of 1920s dance suite, launching with what the Jerusalem calls “a wonky waltz” and running to a sly tango and tarantella finale. One can assume a bit of pearl clutching when the work was new; with a potent blend of insouciance and bravado laced with malice, it’s safe to assume that was exactly what the composer intended. Certainly the pieces, with their thickly scored dissonances and catchy rhythms, suit the players, whose lush sound added an extra gloss to the proceedings.

Ukrainian composer Leonid Desyatnikov (Wikipedia)

As far as I can tell, this was the first time Vancouver audiences have heard the music of Desyatnikov (born 1955 in Kharkiv, Ukraine), who enjoyed a succès de scandale with his 2005 opera The Children of Rosenthal. In a statement about the cabaret project on the group’s website, the Jerusalem describes rummaging through the National Library of Israel’s vast archive, choosing songs from Warsaw and Łódź with the help of the library’s director of music, Gila Flam. “We then approached Desyatnikov, whose work we have been following for many years, and were so delighted when he agreed to take these songs and transform them into a new composition for singer and string quartet.”

The resulting Five Songs is not a simplistic setting of some attractive tunes but a rich, multi-layered work. Tellingly, Desyatnikov describes cabaret as “the culture of cheap chic, and at the same time — in its best forms — a brazen, talented culture full of self-irony and latent despair.”

The composer creates a nuanced dialogue between his source materials and string backups in sophisticated settings that effortlessly engage contemporary string sonorities. There is a knowing directness — not simplicity, and definitely not naiveté. Like five micro scenes in an opera, the performance unfolded with a few apt theatrical touches (a prop or two, a bit of movement) that dissolved the formality of the concert hall without sacrificing musical focus or pandering with cheap effects. Baggio’s bright soprano soared over the complexities of the string parts, but she was the first among equals, not a star diva.

The program ran without intermission, concluding with the shortish Second String Quartet of Korngold. Though this is cast as a conventional four-movement string quartet, in the context of this particular program the work felt episodic, a logical and appropriate example of complementary programming in which the whole became much greater than the sum of its parts. Schulhoff’s Waltz, the first of his five pieces, set up the waltz-finale of the Korngold’s Quartet, a grotesquely disturbing take on (or takedown of) Viennese Gemütlichkeit from a composer already packing his bags for an uncertain future in Hollywood.

Explaining the inclusion of the Korngold, the quartet notes: “We picked this piece because it represents the dissemination of Jewish culture into the American film industry.” There’s a good bit of distance between the cabaret scene in Warsaw and the musical idioms of Viennese late, late Romanticism. And yet the basic point is made: Turns of phrase in the cabaret pieces are echoed in some of the lyrical passages of the Korngold. And the quartet’s striking Larghetto-Lento presages the middle movement of the now-famous Violin Concerto, which had its roots in some of Korngold’s golden-age movie scores.

Ethnomusicologist Ida Halpern (Friends of Chamber Music)

Though the project has been heard in Europe and Israel, that its first airing in North America took place in Vancouver had, for many of us, extra poignancy. The cultural contribution of the emigré community in Los Angeles is justly known and celebrated. Musical life in what had been a sleepy colonial town on the western edge of Canada was similarly changed by the wave of Central European music lovers and patrons who made Vancouver their new home after 1933.

My mentor in the dangerous art of music criticism was Viennese ethnomusicologist, and critic for the Vancouver Province, Ida Halpern, who founded Vancouver’s estimable Friends of Chamber Music, still going strong 75 years later. What a rare treat to hear a thematic program that didn’t shy away from contradictions and complexity, creating an evening where sentimentality and sarcasm were perfectly balanced, a nourishing whole suffused with bittersweet nostalgia and pragmatic realism.