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“Niggunim” – Hebrew for soulful melodies

Photo: Ilona Oltuski

Gil Shaham, Orli Shaham and Avner Dorman (right)

To re-claim one’s cultural heritage has always been an agenda for the Jewish people, who were and are ethnically dispersed in the Diaspora.

This Saturday night’s program at the 92nd Street Y, just before the Passover holidays, was presented by virtuoso violinist Gil Shaham in a duo recital with his sister, the fine concert pianist Orly Shaham. Their performance was devoted to that purpose: celebrating Jewish heritage in music and, beyond that, in Gil Shaham’s own words: “placing it firmly into the 21st century.”

Both Shahams charmingly and nonchalantly offered accounts about the program’s essence related to the question: what makes Jewish music Jewish? How does non-Jewish composer, John Williams’ quintessentially “Jewish” musical theme, associated with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List ‘s soundtrack, fit in?

The accompanying notes to the program by scholar Eric Wen, about the connection of Russian Jewish folksongs and the Yiddish language, explained thoroughly what Hannah Arie-Greifman, Director of Concert and Literary Programming at the 92nd Street Y, summed up as follows: “Music is the bone marrow of Jewish Culture, through the strong musicality of its language…” She described the program going beyond preserving its heritage but rather furthering it, thanks to the 92nd Street Y’s two commissions from two young Jewish composers: Jonathan Leshnoff and Avner Dorman.

The outstanding musical delivery of the program, made with utmost devotion to the emotional context of these soaring melodies, performed affectionately and with a tenderness seldom expressed in that manner, profoundly transformed the audience in the process.

Avner Dorman and his parents

The compositions spanned a range of mostly Russian Jewish composers of the earlier 20th century, except for the Swiss born Ernest Bloch and the two new commissions.  One of these compositions, Der Rebbes Tanz from Yiddish Dance Suite for Violin and Piano, was offered to Gil Shaham by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff, composer in Residence with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, who recently made a name for himself with his Violin Concerto, recorded on the Naxos label.

The 92 Y’s commission, Niggunim, by Israeli composer Avner Dorman was enthusiastically received by the audience. There was something refreshingly new about the work, yet given the evening’s context concerning Jewish identity, it seemed like a fulfilled promise.

Funnily enough though, composing “Jewish music” seemed to be the furthest thing from Dorman’s mind, as the recent Allan Kozinn’s New York Times interview with Dorman suggests, “…Once Mr. Dorman got over his doubts  – that writing self-consciously Jewish music ‘is not exactly what I do’- he hit on an idea for a piece that would …relate to elements of {a variety of Jewish local traditions}… (then) I also became interested in niggunim, this idea of universal melody.’”

By trying to express something about Jewish identity, the young Israeli composer clearly found his own language – again. The many different influences apparent in his compositions including, but by no means limited to Middle Eastern ones, find their way to new musical life, merging with gestures that are full of surprises.

That was already clear with his composition of “Spices,” which conductor Zubin Mehta heard on Israeli television in 2005, and commissioned as a full score for an orchestral version and premiered with the Israel Philharmonic that same year. (See also my article

Dorman was approached by Orly Shaham, who was familiar with his work, through her husband, conductor Robertson, who proposed the commission, as Kozinn points out.   “It had to be substantial,” said Dorman about the Shahams’ expectations, after completing the successful premiere at the 92nd Street Y. And that sentiment describes his Niggunim well, as well as the entire evening’s program.  Dorman, who joyfully admitted to little sleep, since he recently became a new father, was accompanied by his parents to the 92nd Street Y premiere and received a standing ovation while flanked on stage by the Shaham brother and sister performer team.

“The niggun is a fundamental music concept of traditional Jewish music”, says Dorman…”according to Habbad literature, the niggun serves a universal language: it ascends beyond words and conveys a deeper spiritual message than words can…” Photo: Avner Dorman and Hanna Arie Gaifman

What better way to celebrate one’s cultural heritage, than by opening up the conversation with the world? In the best sense of its artistic high level, the evening’s audience at the 92 Y had the opportunity to listen to this special universal language, delivered with musical beauty and dignity.



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