Musaica presents Jewish-themed chamber concerts for High Holy Days

By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN

Perfectly timed to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days, the nine-member, New Orleans-based chamber music ensemble, Musaica, is presenting two evening programs highlighting selected works of Jewish and Jewish-influenced composers.

Musaica welcomes in the Jewish New Year with a series of Jewish-inspired works. (Photo courtesy Musaica)

On Monday, September 17, Musaica will open its 2018-19 season with a program titled “Creation du Monde,” taking its name from a Darius Milhaud composition they will be performing that evening and two nights later. The first concert will bt the Munholland United Methodist Church, 1201 Metairie Road in Metairie, and the second will be on Wednesday, September 19 (Yom Kippur) at the Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand Street, New Orleans. Both concerts are slated to start after 7:30 p.m. Yom Kippur ends at 7:36 p.m.

Featured on the programs for both evenings, in addition to the Milhaud piano quintet, will be Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D-major, Sonata in C-minor for Violin and Harp by Louis Spohr and a special rendition of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre” for harp and trombone.

Violinist Yuki Tanaka, left, violist Bruce Owen, and Diana Thasher on piano, part of the Musaica ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Musaica)

Neither Spohr nor Bruch were Jewish, but Bruch was heavily influenced by Jewish music and culture, as evidenced by the title and subject matter of the piece chosen by Musaica for the program. Kol Nidre (or Kol Nidrei) is the traditional Aramaic, sin forgiveness declaration recited by Jewish congregation leaders and the congregation members prior to the start of the evening service on Yom Kippur. The term is often generally applied to the entire Yom Kippur service itself with its focus on repentance and forgiveness.

The performers on the “Kol Nidre” are ensemble members Cathy Anderson on harp and Matthew Wright on trombone. The work was originally scored by Bruch for cello and orchestra but, as Musaica violist and spokesperson Bruce Owen explained, “We thought it would be nice to give this to our trombone player. Trombonists only have limited opportunities to play chamber music.” The harp, he added, “is supposed to emulate a cantor in a synagogue chanting.”

Trombone section for Musaica. (Photo courtesy Musaica)

The inclusion of the Milhaud piece with its title translated as the “creation of the world,” was, according to Owen, “an obvious choice, considering the timing.” The two concerts are being presented shortly after Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – a date considered by Jews to be the anniversary of human creation and the starting point for the Hebrew calendar.

Milhaud, born to Jewish parents in France, was forced into exile when the Nazis overran that country in 1940. Fleeing to the U.S., he taught music at Mills College in Oakland, California where two of his most famous students were jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and lyricist/composer Burt Bacharach. Brubeck was so impressed and influenced by his early mentor that he named his first son after him.

Stylistically inspired by American jazz, which he heard firsthand in New York City’s Harlem section in the early 1920s, Milhaud’s “La Creation du Monde” was originally composed as a ballet with a full orchestral accompaniment in 1923. Later on he adapted the piece into several different arrangements, including the piano quintet format that Musaica will be performing.

Violinist Yuki Tanaka and violist Bruce Owen. (Photo courtesy of Musaica)

The original orchestral composition, Owen said, had saxophones and other jazz instruments not normally found in an orchestral setting. “It was written at a time when Europeans, especially, were fascinated by American jazz. There’s a lot of syncopation and other kinds of jazzy rhythms going on and, because it was also a ballet, people were dancing to it.”

The piece, Owen said, consists of five movements with each of the movements labeled by events occurring within them during the work’s 20-minute duration, “So the world gets created very quickly,” he laughed.

The movements musically depict the period before Creation, then they move through the creation of non-human living things to the first humans and their offspring. The final and longest movement, Owen said, “incorporates a lot of the themes from the earlier movements.”

More than a dozen configurations of the work have been recorded between Milhaud’s original pressing in 1932 and a chamber version featuring New Orleans-born saxophonist Branford Marsalis in 2000. Among other notable composers and conductors who recorded the piece are Leonard Bernstein, Charles Munch, Sir Simon Rattle, Andre Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Flute, harp and oboe trio members (l. to r.) flutist Sarah Schettler, Cathy Anderson on harp and oboeist Jane Gabka. (Photo courtesy of Musaica)

Musaica’s instrumental configuration on “La Creation du Monde” consists of Yuki Tanaka and Judith Fitzpatrick on violins, Owen on viola, Rachel Hsieh on cello and Diana Thacher on piano.

The Mendelssohn quartet, one of three composed by him for the King of Sweden in 1838, was chosen as a good representative sampling of his extensive chamber music canon, Owen noted. Performing on the piece will be Tanaka, Fitzpatrick and Hsieh joined by Ila Rondeau on viola.

Although Mendelssohn’s father, Abraham, son of the famous 18th century rabbi and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, had his family converted to Christianity and took on a different surname, Felix Mendelssohn is still regarded as a Jewish composer. He was viciously denounced in an anti-Semitic rant by German composer Richard Wagner and his works, along with those of other Jewish composers, were banned in Germany when the Nazis came into power in the 1930s.

Rounding out the program, Tanaka and Anderson will team up on the Spohr C-minor sonata.

The Spohr duet, though lacking a Jewish connection, was chosen because “It’s a nice showy piece for the violin,” Owen said. “We are accenting Jewish composers but not featuring them exclusively. They are the largest part of the program,” Owen added.

Summing up the evenings’ offerings, Owen said, “I like the fact that we can connect all these pieces together in some way; in this case focusing on Jewish composers and the High Holy Days. The Mendelssohn piece is very well known. The ‘Creation du Monde’ is really appropriate for New Orleans by having a lot of jazz themes in it. It’s nice that we can bring in a much smaller version that allows our ensemble to fit into the places where we’re playing it. And we’re happy to be able to let people hear this music because it’s a piece that doesn’t get played too much. We think the audience is really going to enjoy it.”

The total duration of the Musaica performances will be around 75 minutes with a short break roughly midway through the program. In keeping with Musaica tradition, both performances will be followed by a reception during which audience members can meet and chat with the musicians. Non-alcoholic beverages and light snacks will be offered.

Although the performances are free and open to the public, donations of $20 for adults and $10 for students and seniors are requested to help offset production costs.

Other performances scheduled for Musaica’s 2018-19 season include:

Angels in Flight

January 29 and 30, 2019

St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church and UNO Performing Arts Center.

Featured works include Charles Gounod’s “Petit Symphonie”; Marjan Mozetich’s “Angels in Flight” for harp, winds and strings; and Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A-major.

Songs of the Earth

April 22 and 25, 2019

Munholland United Methodist Church and St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church

Musaica performs works inspired by the folk and indigenous music from different parts of the world. Along with works by Dvorak, Bartok and Villa Lobos will be two world premieres including a new work by Musaica bassist, Dave Anderson, based on Louisiana folk and jazz tunes, and a string quartet of Vietnamese folk music by Dylan Tran, this year’s participant in Musaica’s composition workshop.

For more information about Musaica, visit their website.


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