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The social hall of Congregation Beth Israel was a full house for this concert of “Jewish Jewels,” music composed either by Jewish composers or those who embraced elements of Jewish musical style. Pianist Dan Weiser, founder and Artistic Director of AmiciMusic, was joined by two featured artists — violinist Rachel Patrick and clarinetist Steve Loew — and violinist Ginger Kowal, violist Kara Poorbaugh, and cellist Franklin Keel who are members of Asheville’s Opal String Quartet. In keeping with AmiciMusic’s mission to perform chamber music in intimate venues and non-traditional spaces, the concert was a delightful mix of serious and not-so-serious music making in the warm ambiance of a social hall where food and wine (served at intermission) were an integral part of the fun. The concert was also the inaugural performance on the baby grand piano, a gift to Congregation Beth Israel from Jean Cassidy and Virginia Boyle.
The concert opened with the singing of Psalms 96 and 29 by the Ben Sefer students of Congregation Beth Israel who were directed by Josefa Briant. This set the scene for the two plaintive opening works for violin and piano — "Kaddish" (Maurice Ravel) and Theme from Schindler’s List (John Williams). The kaddish is a prayer of praise to God in the face of sadness and death, and musically this was underscored by an impassioned, ornate violin melody. The pairing of the two pieces, one classical and one commercially conceived as film scoring, actually worked quite well.
Next was Darius Milhaud's Suite for clarinet, violin, and piano from 1936. Among Milhaud’s extensive catalog of compositions are film scores and incidental music for plays. The music he composed to accompany Jean Anouilh’s popular Voyageur sans bagages (Traveler Without Baggage, 1936) about an amnesiac World War I soldier was reworked as this four-movement suite. The Overture featured a Brazilian rhythmic bustle which was followed by the Divertissement-Animé, a slower movement influenced by Parisian composers. This one was mainly a dialog between violin and clarinet in which phrases were initiated by one instrument, only to be finished by the other. The brief third movement Jeu-Vif was a foil to the rollicking cowboy-in-the-saddle rhythms of the finale. All players worked harmoniously to pull off this most eclectic piece.
The final movement from the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Aram Khachaturian from the mid-1930s set up the final piece before intermission, Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. The unusual scoring for string quartet, clarinet and piano date from its genesis as a work for the Zimro Ensemble formed in 1918 in Petrograd by the clarinetist Simon Bellison. The work was written for this ensemble and first performed in 1920. Despite the squabble over whether Prokofiev actually used the Hebrew melodies given to him in a notebook by Bellison, or whether he composed his own tunes in their style, the work is convincingly Hebraic in melodic style and pathos. The ensemble performed this with satisfying contrasts in mood, dynamics, and articulations, its rousing final chords bringing the audience to their feet.
Two klezmer selections opened the second half (“Lebedik un Freylekh” and ”Bay a Glezele Mashke”) and served as a primer on klezmer music. Described as “the traditional, celebratory music of eastern European Jewry,” klezmer is played worldwide at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other simkhes, or happy occasions. It is heart-felt and heart-stoppingly energetic, the musical equivalent of a high energy drink. “Higher, faster, louder” seems to be the operant directive. And so we heard "Klezmusic" by Simon Sargon, a workout featuring brutal demands on the clarinetist who hit stratospheric high notes and was otherwise all over the horn. I found the piece to be almost a self-parody and more than a little corny, but the audience loved it.
In the “and-now-for-something-different” department were two selections from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” arranged very artfully by Heifitz for piano and violin. Following this were "Benjie’s Bubble" and "Slipped Disc" by the King of Swing Benny Goodman. A quiet hidden jewel was Movement II from Café Music for cello, piano and violin by Paul Schoenfield, its beauty marred by the fact that the piano was now out of tune. The program concluded with Srul Irving Glick’s The Klezmer’s Wedding, an over-the-top distillation of klezmer style for clarinet, violin, and piano.