Music, the chasidic master Reb Nachman of Bratslav believed, brought Jews closer to God. Now comes “Bratslav-Beethoven-Bratslav,” a free one-hour recital in which Reb Nachman’s folktales are set to music by the great German Romantic composer.
The unusual pairing will be performed next weekend at the Jewish Theological Seminary, featuring a pianist along with a baritone (Raphael Frieder, cantor of Temple Israel in Great Neck) and soprano (Israeli opera singer Lianne Aharony) who, respectively, replace the cello and violin of Beethoven’s concertos. Boaz Tarsi, who teaches music at JTS, transposed the music for voice.
Directed by Yossi Yzraely, the former artistic director of the Habima (Israel’s national theater), “Bratslav-Beethoven-Bratslav” was adapted in part from Reb Nachman’s “Seven Beggars,” the same mystical fables that served as the basis for “The Mad 7,” the one-man show by Yehuda Hyman that was presented last September at the JCC in Manhattan.
Edna Nahshon, a JTS Hebrew professor who is producing the show, noted that Reb Nachman (1772-1810) and Beethoven (1770-1827) both lived at the turn of the 19th century, a time when chasidism was under assault both from more traditional Orthodox Jews and from a growing number of non-observant, secular Jews. Even as Reb Nachman re-energized his chasidic followers with ecstatic song and movement, Beethoven helped to recreate the world of music by ushering in the Romantic Age.
Izraely, who is a visiting professor this spring at JTS, directed the Israeli musical “Only Fools are Sad,” based on chasidic music, on Broadway in 1971. But he is best known for his productions of dramas based on the writings of Franz Kafka and S. Y. Agnon. In an interview, he told The Jewish Week that he does not know if Reb Nachman ever heard Beethoven’s music; a better question, he said, is “Did Beethoven ever hear about a strange Jew who was running from place to place, persecuted by other Jews?”
“Beethoven-Bratslav-Beethoven” will be performed in the beit midrash (study hall) at JTS, which has only about 50 seats, arranged like the Hebrew letter “het.” The space will be lit by candles, making the production, Yzraely observed, feel like a combination of prayer service, concert, play and yahrtzeit.
Rather than look for the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age that unifies various creative impulses, Yzarely said that he works more like a chemist, “putting together completely unrelated elements and seeing what glorious affinities emerge.” In the end, he agrees with Reb Nachman’s belief that one must keep moving forward, no matter the cost. “We advance from failure to failure,” Yzraely said, “but we advance.”
“Beethoven-Bratslav-Beethoven” will be performed at JTS (Broadway and 122nd Street) on Saturday, May 18, 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday, May 19, 2 and 7 p.m. For reservations, which are required, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.