Aug 16: Big Galut(e)

Cherry Valley Star Theatre: Artworks Concert Series

  • August 16, 2015, 7:30 pm
  • Star Theater, 44 Main St., Cherry Valley, NY
  • Admission: $15 general public, $12 Artworks members, $10 Glimmerglass staff

Big Galut(e)

  • Michael Leopold, theorbo/guitar
  • Sasha Margolis, violin
  • Mark Rubinstein, accordion
  • Robin Seletsky, clarinet
  • Richard Sosinsky, double bass

with guests (please click here for their biographies)

  • Adam Guth, percussion
  • Jasmine Habersham, soprano
  • Matt McClung, percussion

The Star Theater was the scene of Big Galut(e)’s first-ever concert in 2011. The concert on August 16 marks the band’s fourth performance here. Other 2015 activities include concerts in San Francisco, Sonoma, Palo Alto, Honolulu, Maui, Syracuse, and Scarsdale, along with the release of a debut album hailed as “Head and shoulders above the pack” and “A real treat for open minds.” Please click here for more information about Big Galut(e) or visit their Facebook page.

Program

I.

  • old favorites
  • works by Mahler and Musorgsky
  • other possible surprises

II.

  • premiere of The Tale of Monish
  • Music by Sanford Margolis
  • Text by Sasha Margolis, based on the poem “Monish” by I.L. Peretz

Program Notes by Sasha Margolis

Gustav Mahler, Symphony #1, Feierlich und gemessen

The works of Gustav Mahler, long since and firmly ensconced in the constellation of classical music masterpieces, occasioned great confusion and controversy when they first appeared. This was on account of their tendency to blend musical elements of widely varied origins: classical music in the tradition of Beethoven, Wagner, and Bruckner, military marches, folksong, popular tunes, and Jewish and other ethnic musics. Musicologist Timothy Freeze has described the extraordinarily regimented and loaded way in which various musics were classified in the nineteenth century. Pure Austro-German music was a “fine art and autonomous philosophical pursuit in its own right,” Beethoven was “the quintessential example of the higher autonomous artwork,” while Rossini’s operas “represented the lower class of music intended merely to entertain.” Folksong was “a direct articulation of the spirit of the people, having its origins in the Volk at some point in the distant past,” while popular song was “new, fleeting, and morally inferior.” Mahler’s music, defying this kind of categorization, left critics at a loss.

The explanation for Mahler’s new approach has often been traced to biographical details. Mahler grew up as part of a Jewish minority among a German-speaking minority in Czech-speaking Bohemia. His career then took him to Hamburg, Vienna, and New York. Later in life, he would write that he felt himself “thrice homeless – as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Always an intruder, never welcomed.” Meanwhile, shortly before his death, Mahler went for a psychoanalytic consultation with Sigmund Freud, during which he remembered an incident from childhood: as his parents were arguing (his father may have been beating his mother), Mahler ran out into the street, where an organ-grinder was playing a popular tune, the sound of which transfixed him. To this incident, he attributed a need to undermine his melodies, at climactic emotional moments, with what amount to non-Classical elements.

Whatever the biographical influence, the end result is music of extraordinary flexibility and eclecticism. There is no better example than this third movement of the first symphony. Mahler employs three distinct kinds of material here, beginning with a minor version of the folksong “Bruder Martin, schläfst du?” known in the English-speaking world as “Are You Sleeping?” He follows this with what sounds very much like klezmer music, before moving on to an excerpt of one of his own Wayfarer songs, classical music written in German folksong style (with the voice part distributed, in the symphony, among orchestral instruments.)

In our version, we give the Wayfarer song back to a singer, who, taking the part of a spurned and heartbroken lover, sings: “On the road there stands a linden tree, and there for the first time I found rest in sleep! Under the linden tree that snowed its blossoms onto me – I did not know how life went on, and all was well again! All! All, love and sorrow and world and dream!”

Sleep here is a stand-in for death (one of Mahler’s obsessions throughout his life.) And the idea of death extends to the sleep in “Are You Sleeping,” recast as it is in minor: Mahler claimed that this movement was inspired by a lithograph called “The Hunter’s Funeral.” Whether or not the mournful klezmer-like music is to be heard as funeral music, the movement as a whole seems to be a meditation on death, made broader, deeper and richer by the variety of source materials which came naturally to this homeless, Bohemian-Austrian Jew.

The Tale of Monish

Two summers ago, in this theater, musicians and actors from the Glimmerglass Festival put on a delightful performance of Stravinsky’sL’histoire du soldat. In addition to being delightful, the performance was, for me, inspiring. The elements found in L’histoire–enchanting story interspersed with enthralling music–seemed to me perfect for Big Galut(e). Stravinsky’s piece is even written for an ensemble resembling a klezmer band. But, L’histoire was not quite the right piece for us. Rather, the right piece was one that had yet to be written. And so, we decided to write it.

The first step was to find a suitable story, perhaps one which, likeL’histoire, featured the devil. As I searched for material, my father suggested a poem, “Monish,” written in 1888 by I.L Peretz. “Monish” is a seminal work in the history of Yiddish literature, and Peretz, one of the patriarchs of that literature, who died one hundred years ago this year. The poem begins by comparing life to a river, people to fish, and the devil to a fisherman. It then goes on to relate a case study in temptation, involving young Polish Jew Monish and the devil’s wife, Lilith. The poem’s imagery is startlingly modern and cosmopolitan: the devil smokes, demon bands in Hell play the can-can, Monish has a good angel and a bad angel on his shoulders attempting to sway his actions.

Working from an excellent translation by Seymour Levitan, I made an English version of Peretz’s work, geared toward out-loud recitation, and designed to emphasize the story’s humorous and musical possibilities. I was led to emphasize the work’s modernity in part through my father’s influence: imagining the poem, he had always pictured the devil and his wife as belonging to the same cultural milieu as his immigrant parents. From this image followed certain textual and musical choices.

Deciding that, rather than a patchwork of Klezmer music, we’d prefer a cohesive and original score,we turned once again to my father, whose lifelong immersion in multiple musical genres, mastery of improvisation, fluency in Yiddish, and unbounded creativity made him an ideal partner. Attentive listeners may notice a number of musical quotes. The poem “Monish” is ostensibly a tale of sexual seduction, but Peretz made it clear that we are really, or also, dealing with a story of cultural seduction: the irresistible allure of Western culture for the Eastern European Jew. Accordingly, the overture plays out as a battle of famous Jewish tunes vs. famous non-Jewish pieces. Other musical selections continue to take sides in this cultural competition.

Finally, a few definitions may be helpful in following the text:

  • shtetl: an Eastern European market town with a sizable Jewish population
  • Hashem: God
  • Midrashic exigeses: interpretations of sacred texts
  • King David’s heir:” the Messiah
  • mishpokhe: family
  • alef-beis: the alphabet
  • mishigas: craziness
  • shofar: the ram’s horn blown during the High Holy Days, and associated with the coming of the Messiah
  • shul: synagogue

For more information, please click on the links below:

Fenimore String Quartet

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