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Evgeny Kissin: On a Mission to Celebrate Jewish Heritage

When Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post’s longtime political columnist and co-founder of the evening’s host organisation, Pro Musica Hebraica, introduced Evgeny Kissin at his recent Washington concert in co-production with the Kennedy Center, it was clear from the start that this evening would turn out to be very special.

Photo Credit: Margot Schulman “Tonight’s performance carries particular poignancy because on Dec. 7, 2013, in a dramatic defiance of attempts to isolate and ostracize Israeli artists and musicians, Mr. Kissin took Israeli citizenship as a show of unshakable personal solidarity. Tonight will be his first concert in the United States as an Israeli,” Krauthammer said referring to the native Russian pianist with a British passport. But beyond his political stance, it was Kissin’s program choices that convinced his audience of the pianist’s deep commitment to his Jewish roots. Both in terms of music and words, Kissin provided a fascinating introduction to a heritage whose riches are not always widely known.

Poto: Kissin receives Israeli Citizenship

Of course, this is what Pro Musica Hebraica is all about. Started by Krauthammer and his wife Robyn, it is the organization’s mission to explore the historic and geographic diversity of Jewish cultural heritage through a range of programs presenting lost and neglected masterpieces of Jewish classical music.

Now in its seventh season, the series’ concerts have covered cantorial music, the works of musicians persecuted during the Holocaust, baroque Jewish music from Amsterdam, and works showing the influence of French Romantic music on Jewish composers. The series has featured performers as varied as Cantor Netanel Hershtik, clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, and pianist Marc-André Hamelin.

“The series tries to establish that there is more to Jewish music than the obvious pick of Hava Nagilah or Klezmer,” says Krauthammer. “There is an abundance of works that deserve exposure. It is our hope to continue to disseminate these works by charismatic young performers, who carry them on to their next performances and assure these works’ visibility and continued inspiration.”

Who better to fit the bill than star pianist Evgeny Kissin whose personal mission coincides with what the Krauthammers want to achieve?

Kissin made sure that the artistic merits of the evening’s musical part were in no way compromised. As James Loeffler, the series’ director of research explains, Kissin took the plunge into a repertoire that was, in large parts, as new to him as it was to the audience.

“Other than with Bloch, Kissin was unfamiliar with the 20th century Russian-Jewish composers. Only after an in-depth examination of 50 or so scores we sent him to read and play did he come up with the concert’s selection. These were pieces he felt he could put out there without compromising their musical validity – he never wanted to play music just because it is Jewish.” The final selection of works by composers such as Moshe Milner, Ernest Bloch, Alexander Veprik and Alexander Krein left no doubt about the high standard of Kissin’s choices. Transforming the concert hall into a vibrant space celebrating Jewish music and poetry, the pianist took his audience on a musical and poetic journey marked by works that illuminate his own, personal brand of Jewish identity. Moshe Milner’s dramatic Farn Opsheyd (Before Separating) opened the evening’s program. Composed by the creator of the first Yiddish opera in post-revolution Russia, Die Himlen brenen (The heavens burn, 1923), this work has a compelling modernist, soulful appeal. Milner was greatly inspired by Scriabin, and Farn Opsheyd certainly evokes a similar soundscape. Last year, Kissin chose Farn Opsheyd as the musical segment of a Center for Jewish History event honoring his engagement for Yiddish culture and poetry. “Yiddish culture is a real treasure, not only for the Jewish people but for all mankind,” he commented back then.

Photo Credit: Margot Schulman

Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch’s Piano Sonata No.40 was next on Kissin’s program. Written in 1935, Bloch had dedicated the sonata to Italian pianist Guido Agosti, who premiered the work in Geneva in 1936.

Representing a distinct expression of Bloch’s relationship with Judaism, the composer described the first movement as being “of an obscure and metallic character without a trace of sentimentalism.” The middle movement, “Pastorale,” is based on a folk-like melody, which undergoes varied metamorphoses through arpeggiated lines and conventional trills that aid in establishing the movement’s idyllic mood; the finale “ … like the great interrogation of life and the future which loses itself in the unknown.”

Bloch’s lifelong quest for the conjoining of his aesthetic ideas and his spiritual-cultural Judaic heritage becomes apparent in works such as his 1923 Baal Shem Suite; many carry Hebrew titles and contain a historic notion of Judaism and Jewish antiquity.

Kissin opened the concert’s second half with Alexander Veprik’s Sonata No.2, Op.5, composed in 1924. Considered one of the greatest composers of the "Jewish school", Ukraine-born Veprik had been part of a group of composers creating Moscow’s Society for Jewish Music in 1923. It was an outgrowth of the Society for Jewish Folk Music, founded in 1908 by a group of young musicians at the St.Petersburg conservatory, and promoted by the eminent Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The renewed interests in Jewish culture lead to an unprecedented flourishing of the art throughout the 1920s. Back then, Veprik’s oeuvre had also gained great popularity in Europe and the United States. The Berlin Radio Symphony performed nearly his entire oeuvre between 1928-1929; in New York, Arturo Toscanini conducted Veprik's Dances and Songs of the Ghetto at Carnegie Hall in 1933.

While both Veprik’s and Milner’s works show only subtly nuanced intonations reminiscent of Jewish folk melodies, Alexander Krein’s Suite Dansee is filled with Jewish elements, thus affording a very personally crafted glimpse into a milieu threatened by fading into distant memory.

Photo Credit: Margot Schulman

Composed during a time when increasing political pressure led many artists to compromise individual expression, Suite Dansee takes part of its inspiration from the modern harmonic language of composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin. Some of Krein‘s most important works based on Jewish folk and liturgical melodies, such as his symphonic cantata Kaddish, date back to the early 1920s; he continued his redefinition of melodies from his Jewish roots right up to the mid-1940s.

Photo Credit: Margot Schulman

In between his musical selections, Kissin showcased portions of poems by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yithak Leibush Peretz, providing a unique opportunity for audiences to learn about his profound affection for his heritage. In reciting those poignant and often melancholic poetic verses, Kissin indulged his audience in rhythmic throngs of flawlessly pronounced Yiddish verse, and his cherub-like expression left his audience with an almost otherworldly feeling. One did not have to strain one’s imagination to imagine Kissin as a young boy, spending time at his Yiddish-speaking paternal grandparents’ datshka on the outskirts of Moscow. It was here that he inherited his love for the Yiddish language, which he decided to learn many years later, he once told me over dinner on New York’s Upper West Side.

Photo: With the author of the article, Ilona Oltuski after the moving recital at Kennedy Center

And it was the certainty of Pro Musica Hebraica’s founders that “... Yiddish poetry recited from the stage at Kennedy Center would be an extremely unique and rewarding event,” that had made this special evening a reality.

Photo: Ilona Oltuski - with Krauthammer

Kissin’s first public recitations of Yiddish poetry go back to 2002 when Verbier Festival’s Martin Engstroem asked Kissin to integrate poetry recitation into his musical offerings.  “I accepted under the condition that the other musicians do the same. Zubin Mehta, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Itamar Golan agreed to participate in the project. Unfortunately, just before the beginning of the festival, Zubin’s father fell gravely ill and died, so Mehta was unable to continue with the project. And at the last minute, just a few days before her concert, Kiri Te Kanawa cancelled. Only Itamar and I were left. I was the first to get my feet wet,” Kissin recalls. His love for Yiddish poetry also resulted in a recording released in 2010, ”On the Keys of Yiddish poetry”.


If the series’ goal is to ask what the essence of Jewish music consists of, and to communicate the uniqueness of a heritage beyond the confines of simple labeling, then Kissin performing the works of the greats of Jewish music and adding an intimate sentiment for the world of Yiddish poetry have greatly advanced that mission.



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