Rooted in ancient spiritual practices, Jewish music reflects the living history of a cosmopolitan people who have migrated across the globe. As Jews moved from place to place, often to escape persecution, their music incorporated elements of other cultures' music, and influenced that music in turn. The Jewish Music Festival — now in its 23rd year and programmed by the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay — showcases this incredible variety of traditional and progressive sounds that comprise the Jewish musical melting pot.
And perhaps no contemporary musician encompasses this ethos more than Frank London, the multifaceted jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader who founded the Grammy Award-winning Klezmatics. The New York-based London, who will receive the festival's first Shofar Award for his immense contributions to Jewish music, will stage the West Coast premiere of his original musical, A Night in the Old Marketplace. A novel setting of a 1907 Yiddish ghost story by Y.L. Perez, the show features 21 songs that run the stylistic gamut, integrating jazz, classical, rock, and world beats with a classic Jewish accent.
"We'll tell the story of one amazing night in a village marketplace," London explained by phone, "when the dead come to life, and a wedding jester challenges God and tries to bring on the end of days. It's a folk opera as well as a ghost story, and a lot of fun. There really hasn't been an original Jewish music theater piece based on traditional Jewish music sources in quite awhile." The concert will feature five singers, including Charlotte Cohn, who sang in Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème on Broadway; Dave Wall, Canada's leading Yiddish singer; and Loren Sklamberg of the Klezmatics. Michael Krasny, host of KQED-FM's Forum, will provide narration. A Night in the Old Marketplace opens the festival on Saturday, March 22 (8 p.m.), at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
With modern means of transportation, musical collaborations have become not only easier, but far more experimental. After the show, London jumps 101 years to coordinate a first-ever, distinctly 21st-century experiment dubbed "The Ark." The collective of Jewish and non-Jewish musicians from around the world will spend a week creating an original collaborative work, to be titled Cyclical Rituals (part 1): Spring.
"We always strive to create a nurturing environment for artists, and to unite high-quality local musicians with their peers around the world," says festival director Ellie Shapiro. "All these players have incredible respect for ethnic and indigenous music; they are incredibly creative and imaginative musicians who like to explore new territory."
The collective includes several East Bay musical fixtures, Grammy-nominated guitarist John Schott and bassist Stuart Brotman, as well as a recent transplant, accordion and keyboard virtuoso Glenn Hartman of the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars. Also participating are Mariana Sadowska, the gifted Ukrainian vocalist and harmonium player; Jewlia Eisenberg, founding member of the band Charming Hostess; Avi Avital, Israeli mandolin virtuoso; and percussionist Aaron Alexander. The fruits of their experiment premieres on March 29 (8 p.m.) at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
For traditional Jewish music, one cannot get more authentic than Hasidic cantor Benzion Miller. Miller hails from Bubov, a small Galician town in Poland, and is a rare exponent of a quasi-operatic cantorial form that is fast dying out. Featured on the PBS special Cantors: A Faith in Song, Miller's rich tenor and virtuosic ornamentation communicate the Jewish people's heartfelt entreaty to G-d at its most profound. Miller sings on March 23 (7:30 p.m.) at Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.
Grammy Award-winning Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov, long championed by the Kronos Quartet and soprano Dawn Upshaw, is perhaps the best-known contemporary composer who brings past and present together. Golijov's melodically inviting, emotionally riveting music blends indigenous and folk elements with a classical sensibility. Transcending cultural and national barriers, the man gives voice to humanity's shared experiences of love, loss, and hope.
The Bridge Players will pair one of Golijov's most fabulous works, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, with music by two other famed Jews, George Gershwin and Felix Mendelssohn, on March 23 (4 p.m.) at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco.
Continuing on the theme of ancient and modern collaborations, the Ladder of Gold duo of Kaila Flexer and oud/lauoto (Greek lute) player Gari Hegedus mix Mizrahi and Sephardic melodies with original music by Teslim. Augmented by monster percussionist Tobias Roberson, early music specialist Shira Kammen, and others, the duo promises beautiful music both evocative and upbeat on March 25 (7:30 p.m.) at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland.
Modernity will certainly predominate the following night, when the crazed New York folk-punk band Golem joins San Francisco's nine-piece Lord Loves a Working Man and Charming Hostess for an evening of exuberance and madness. Will it be melting pot or sheer meltdown when so-called Yiddische punk, Southern Soul, classic rhythm & blues, and Jewlia Eisenberg's unique explorations of spoken text and "the sounding body" share the same stage? Find out on March 26 (9 p.m.) at the Rickshaw Stop.
If you're still coherent after that one, check out brilliant master Israeli percussionist and marimba player Chen Zimbalista, who joins his longtime collaborator, Argentinean pianist José Gallardo and percussionist Katja Cooper for Celebrate Israel @ 60. Among the evening's unimaginable highlights will be an arrangement of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for percussion and piano, a big percussion piece by Menachem Wiesenberg that features four melodies going at the same time, plenty of improvisation, and audience interaction. Check out Zimbalista's amazing clips on his web site, then attend on Thursday, March 27, (7:30 p.m.) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.
After the Ark's performance ritual, the Jewish Music Festival closes with what we all need — a Community Dance Party — on March 30 (4 p.m.) at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay. A festival pass gets you into all nine events at a greatly reduced rate. Call (800) 838-3006, visit BrownPaperTickets.com, or head to the box office at the JCC East Bay (1414 Walnut St., Berkeley).
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