Wanting more

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 16, 2009

Dohnányi delivered alert rhythms, pungent winds and brass, and silk from the divided BSO violins. The high point was 44-year-old German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann in the Martinu. His consistently pure, round, and beautifully focused tone, even in Martinu's most rhythmically unstable music but especially in passages of nostalgic lyricism (sometimes at war with bellicose brasses), made me wonder where I'd heard playing like that before. Zimmermann's program bio held the answer: he performs on a 1711 Stradivarius that once belonged to the great Fritz Kreisler, and it's the natural sweetness and rhythmic life of Kreisler's classic recordings that Zimmermann's staggering but unfussy virtuosity brought to mind.

By the way, WGBH's acquisition of "all-classical" WCRB has not without incident. I received the following e-mail from a frustrated radio listener to a live BSO concert: "The pilot Friday broadcast on WCRB omitted the opening of the Martinu concerto in favor of a canned list of sponsors followed by a weather report(!)" Some wrinkles still need to be ironed out.

The news from across the river is that at historic Agassiz Theater, Harvard has produced its first Yiddish operetta, Shulamis, or The Daughter of Jerusalem, which was written by "the father of the Yiddish Theater," Avrom Goldfaden, and first produced in Russia in 1882. I gather it has been performed continually around the world, though this seems to have been the first version with spoken dialogue in English — the original rhymed libretto has been translated into couplets by librettist, Yiddish scholar, and retired CUNY professor Nahma Sandrow.

The musical score has a more complicated history. In the handsomely produced program book (which includes a dozen color photographs of related documents — playbills, posters, scores — from Harvard's Yiddish Theater collection), Zalmen Mlotek, the "musical curator" (and an artistic director of New York's Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, this country's only professional Yiddish-theater company), writes about the process of assembling a workable edition, since Goldfaden himself seems never to have written down his own score. Directors Debra Caplan (a Harvard PhD candidate in Yiddish literature, with two previous Yiddish theater pieces in her CV) and Cecilia Raker (class of 2011, and a directing intern at Shakespeare & Company last summer) went to the best sources for a performing version.

The score is a bewitching combination of Eastern European melancholy, Bellini, and musical-comedy numbers almost out of Fiddler on the Roof. There's a haunting lullaby ("Raisins and Almonds"), a memorable vow-of-love duet, and several rousing and/or touching folk-like ensembles — all thoroughly worth hearing. The book is another matter. It's a sentimental and melodramatic tale, with comic interludes, about a Jewish maiden from Bethlehem who gets lost in the desert and falls into a well and then falls in love with her handsome rescuer. When he abandons her for a big-city woman in Jerusalem, she pretends to go mad, and he's punished by having both his infant children die. The lovers are finally reunited, and they all live happily ever after (except for the previous wife). I suspect this can't work without some knowing nod to 19th-century theatrical style.

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