Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater joins Music of Remembrance in staging a ghostly musical tale.
Modern dance will meet a klezmer-flavored theatrical score, in the centerpiece of Music of Remembrance’s concert at Benaroya Hall on Monday.
MOR’s annual fall concert traditionally marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht with performances of work by composers who died in the Holocaust and with newly commissioned pieces that address the Holocaust experience.
This year, however, MOR is offering something a little different: four Russian works, composed between 1910 and 1948, all drawing on Jewish folk-music tradition. And for the second time, Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd will provide a choreographic component to the concert.
Spectrum’s dancers will perform to Joel Engel’s “The Dybbuk Suite,” a 1922 work of incidental music written for a legendary play (later a film) about a ghostly intervention in a marriage forced on a daughter by her greedy father.
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In an interview at her home last week, MOR artistic director Mina Miller recalled that Byrd’s involvement with Music of Remembrance came about a few years ago when he attended one of their concerts and was deeply taken with the music of Czech Jewish composer Erwin Schulhoff.
The immediate choreographic result was Byrd’s “Theater of Needless Talents,” a powerhouse of a piece set to a Schulhoff score, debuted by Spectrum in 2008. Soon after came Byrd’s collaboration with Miller on a dance-music presentation of “The Wind,” a 1909 work by Franz Schreker, a composer later banned by the Nazis.
For “The Dybbuk Suite,” Byrd has set a rigorous, folk-inflected and ultimately beautiful pas de deux on Spectrum dancers Kylie Lewallen and Joel Myers. Tracking down the music for them to work to, Miller says, took some doing. She was able to get clarinet, percussion and string parts for it on interlibrary loan from Moscow. But no full score ever turned up: “These Russian scores are not in the greatest shape.”
She also had trouble finding a recording for Spectrum to use in rehearsals. Eventually, through a contact at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, she located a fine student recording produced by Ohio State University’s Jewish studies department.
“The Dybbuk,” Miller says, is much more than an object of ethnic nostalgia. It is, she believes, a “richly layered morality tale” that addresses “the struggle between the mystical and the material and the ambiguous boundaries between the traditional and the modern.” It also digs into the paradox of “invoking divine intervention for worldly ends,” she says.
Byrd sees the story as “not only about possession but obsession.” As Lewallen and Myers work out steps under his guidance, the music’s klezmer rhythms suggest an almost tangolike intensity of coercive embrace.
Engel is one of three composers on the program who had ties to the Society for Jewish Folk Music, which operated in St. Petersburg and Moscow between 1908 and 1929. The society was part of a more general classical-music movement, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that looked to folk music for inspiration — in Engel’s and his colleagues’ case, Miller says, “melodies from the shtetls, from chant, from the synagogue repertoire.”
Alexander Krein’s “Hebrew Sketches” (1910) is the earliest piece on the program. Scored for clarinet and string quartet, it offers a real showcase for Laura DeLuca, whom Miller describes as “the clarinet goddess of Seattle.” (Anyone who’s heard DeLuca’s stellar work with the Seattle Chamber Players is likely to concur.)
Mikhail Gnessin’s Piano Trio, Op. 63 (“Dedicated to the Memory of Our Lost Children”), from 1943, postdates his involvement in the society and alludes obliquely to the first news of the Holocaust to reach Russia.
The most recent work on the program, Shostakovich’s beautiful “From Jewish Folk Poetry” for piano and three singers, dates from 1948 but wasn’t performed publicly until 1955, due to the composer being in disfavor with Stalin and the era’s general anti-Semitism.
There’s a poignant twist, Miller says, for the Russian émigrés performing in the concert. “This is the first time in their life that they’re playing this music. They couldn’t play it in Russia. You couldn’t outwardly be Jewish in any way. And they play it with such passion. … This concert is just in their blood.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org