An evening of French-Jewish music

Pro Musica Hebraica is an organization devoted to presenting Jewish classical music — much of it lost, forgotten, or rarely performed — in a concert hall setting. It is the project of Charles and Robyn Krauthammer (respectively, the chairman and the chief executive officer). I reported on Pro Musica Hebraica’s November 2009 concert, which featured baroque music from Italy and Holland, here.
Last night, my wife and I attended Pro Musica Hebraica’s final concert of this season. This time, the focus was on French-Jewish music from the 19th and 20th centuries. The performances, all absolutely first rate, were by the Biava Quartet, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, and pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski.
The compositions were by three Jewish composers — Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, and Charles-Valentin Alkan — plus Maurice Ravel. Ravel was not a Jew, but many people thought he was due to his composition of several Jewish vocal works, which were performed last night.
The two works by Alkan that were presented last night, both deeply religious, represented their first performance in the United States. In fact, they were only recently recovered from manuscripts in the Geneva Conservatory archives. The revival of music such as this is a major purpose of Pro Musica Hebraica.
The highlight of last evening, however, was the performance of Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde. Milhaud was a Jew from Provence whose family roots there, he said, dated back to 600 years before Christ. But his musical roots encompassed not just France and Judaism, but also Brazil and the United States. His exposure to Brazilian folk songs and American jazz inspired him to push French musical impressionism in fascinating new directions.
La Creation du Monde magically embodies these directions. After the performance, one audience member called it “Rhapsody in Genesis,” a reference to its similarity to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But the reference does not do justice to Milhaud, and not only because his composition was first performed (as I understand it) a year before Gershwin’s.
So let’s give the final words on La Creation du Monde to Leonard Bernstein, who famously recorded the piece along with Orchestre National de France, and to Dave Brubeck. Bernstein wrote:

Out of all this has come one real masterpiece, one full-length, fully developed jazz work that had such character and originally that even today, it sounds as fresh as it did when it was written in 1923. It is a ballet called The Creation of the World, by the brilliant French composer Darius Milhaud. I take the liberty of calling this work a masterpiece because it has the one real requisite of a masterpiece — durability. Among all of those experiments with jazz that Europe flirted with in this period, only The Creation of the World emerges complete, not as a flirtation but as a real love affair with jazz.

Said Brubeck, more simply:

Milhaud’s Creation du Monde was, and remains, the best jazz piece from a classical European composer.

I understand that last night’s concert will air on our local classical music station, WETA, later this year. If I learn the date, I’ll post it.

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