He’s played Tevye, the opinionated pater familias in Fiddler on the Roof, more than 2,000 times in his career. But now, aged 88 and still involved in a variety of musical and cultural activities, Theodore Bikel can rightly proclaim as a Jewish elder.
“I do believe that the world is kind of crazy, and that the insanity will not be cured very soon,” he says by phone from his Westwood, California, home. “And I’m also not naive enough to believe that a few innocent songs can stop wars and conflagrations,” he continues. “But until other people make better beginnings, I’m gonna have to continue to sing.”
Bikel will be singing this week as part of the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley, where over the course of nine days (beginning this past Saturday) he’ll have had plenty of company.
Several of the festival’s events will celebrate the once-active Jewish musical presence in Poland — virtually exterminated, along with millions of Jews, during Nazi occupation.
“There are almost no Jews in [present-day Poland],” notes Wesleyan ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin, who on March 12 will present a summary of his three books on Jewish music history. “But what you have, in the 30 years since the Solidarity movement, is recognition by the intelligentsia and some others that the Jews, who were 10 percent of the population, are missing, and it’s a loss to Polish culture.
“So they’ve begun to seriously foster interest in that aspect of missing Poland,” Slobin continues. “And it crystallizes around music. The Jewish Culture Festival Krakow draws large audiences; they use the shell of the old [ghetto] community that’s in Schindler’s List as a staging point.”
Poetic Inspiration From the Vilna Ghetto
San Francisco Conservatory alumnus and composing faculty member David Garner will, on March 9, premiere his Vilna Poems, based on the works of Jewish poet Avrom Sutskever written while he was confined in a Polish ghetto. Garner had begun the project with the French-Jewish cabaret singer Sylvie Braitman in 2005, and later revived it after Braitman’s untimely death from cancer, collaborating with soprano Lisa Delan.
“Lisa has commissioned me before, and recorded lots of my music,” says Garner. “She informed me, very early in the process, that she was intending for [clarinetist] David Krakauer and [cellist] Matt Haimovitz to be on board for this piece. I’ve worked with Matt before, have worked with Kristin Pankonin, the pianist, for decades, and I know Lisa’s voice very well, so it was a great stroke of luck that I was able to use what I know about these people’s individual talents to write the piece.”
Delan encouraged Garner to evoke klezmer, a celebratory dance-based music developed by Eastern European Ashkenazic Jews and imported to the U.S. during 20th-century immigrations. “David is such a wonderful klezmer clarinetist that I wrote with an ethnic bent embedded in my own 21st-century musical language,” says Garner. “I’ve used scales that sometimes are called ‘gypsy minor.’ But I also wrote two cadenzas, one for David and one for Matt, which allow them, particularly when they have solo lines that don’t interfere with the singer, to come up with their own ornamentations.”
Delan encouraged Garner to evoke klezmer, a celebratory dance-based music developed by Eastern European Ashkenazic Jews.
Haimovitz and Krakauer, notes Garner, “have done a lot of performing together of avant-garde music, and music that goes toward the Jewish community.” The pair of instrumentalists will continue the program on March 9 with their take on Quartet for the End of Time, which Olivier Messiaen composed while interned in a German prison camp and premiered there with a Jewish clarinetist, Henri Akoka.
Human Connections Through Music
Also featured in the festival are the Real Vocal String Quartet’s interpretation of Russian Jewish songwriter Regina Spektor and others, a collaboration between multi-instrumentalist Michael Alpert and Julian Kytasty, a Ukrainian virtuoso on bandura (lute-harp), and an exhibition of cultural artifacts from the shtetls, Jewish villages.
Bikel will appear with Dutch-Jewish singer Shura Lipovsky and Bosnian-born accordionist Merima Ključo in a group founded as Serendipity 4 by Bikel’s pianist wife, Tamara Brooks, after she was invited to Bosnia to help promote cultural reconciliation. “The material we do is not only Jewish, and even the Jewish material had various facets,” says Bikel. “It’s in Yiddish as well as in Ladino, because whatever Jews there were in Bosnia were Sephardic Jews. We call it ‘a bridge to peace,’ because we’re singing each other’s music. We also do Bosnian songs, and also French and other material. I’ve always been like that; I’ve never just taken one kind of material. I believe in the kaleidoscopic nature of art.”
The formation and mission of Bikel and his collaborators will be celebrated in a film and a recording later this year, under the title Journey: Four Artists. “Unfortunately and tragically for me, my wife, Tamara, died last May,” he says, “so now we have a quartet-minus-one.”
“We call it ‘a bridge to peace,’ because we’re singing each other’s music.” –Theodore Bikel
The festival, now in its 28th edition, represents an affirmation of the vitality of Jewish music. “It came to be known and popular because of certain people who toiled in the field, including myself,” affirms Bikel, who began recording in the late 1950s. “It enjoys a greater distribution than it did in those days,” he points out.
“You don’t want to be tagged as an ethnic composer,” says Mark Slobin, who notes that exploration of Jewish themes is now “very fashionable” among classical composers, “including Golijov and that whole crowd, and Steve Reich. And there’s a whole young crowd of in-your-face Jewishness which has been brewing since the ’90s,” represented by the festival’s rousing closing act, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird.
“The concert music that my colleagues, and particularly my students, are writing now has a huge component of universality and all sorts of gestures of different cultures,” adds David Garner. “It’s organically grown out of different musical languages, rather than being a combination of them. And I think that’s essential, to keep the audience.”