Memory play

Brave Old World at the Levanthal-Sidman Jewish Community Center, March 8, 2008
By JON GARELICK  |  March 10, 2008
Brave Old World

The new-Jewish-music quartet Brave Old World have been performing Dus gezang fin geto Lodzh|Song of the Lódz Ghetto for 15 years, but they hadn’t brought it to the Boston area until their two shows at the Jewish Theatre of New England’s presentation at the Leventhal-Sidman JCC in Newton last weekend. Created by BOW’s music director, Alan Bern, the piece draws on songs written in the Nazi-created Polish ghetto during the war; they’re supplemented by other pre-war Yiddish music, Bern’s writing, and the group’s improvisations.

It’s as much theater as concert piece, and when the lights dimmed, a series of supertitles on a screen over the stage offered context — the ghetto “self-governed” under the leadership of the enigmatic Chaim Rumkowski, the more than 200,000 people who inhabited it, the music that emerged from its few survivors in oral histories. As the titles finished, a scratchy recording of a survivor singing “Rumkovski Khayim” came up — just as on the 2005 recording for the piece from Winter & Winter. Michael Alpert’s fiddle picked up the tune, and then it was transformed with an extended piano solo by Bern. Before long, Alpert was singing “A gants fayn mazltov”/“A really fine mazltov,” and the piece kicked into celebratory klezmer mode.

It was like that throughout the 90-minute performance: celebration vying with lament, with flashes of bitter Jewish humor, the Yiddish lyrics translated in the supertitles (“There goes a German Jew/With a briefcase/Looking for butter or margarine/He gets a visa to the cemetery”). Everyone doubled: Bern on piano and accordion, Kurt Bjorling on clarinet and bass clarinet, Stuart Brotman on bass, trombone, and violin. Alpert was the frontman, singing, dancing, playing fiddle, and keeping the boom-crash march beat with a small parade bass drum with top cymbal. At one point the band broke into the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — the kind of music people in the ghetto would have known and played. German culture, but also Jewish culture.

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  Topics: Live Reviews , Ludwig van Beethoven, Alan Bern, Stuart Brotman
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