Chorus Raises Its Voice To Keep Yiddish Alive
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Chorus Raises Its Voice To Keep Yiddish Alive

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Its sopranos and tenors have made the long trip from the Lower East Side to the Upper West Side, endured a change of name and some juggling of conductors. But the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus has persevered. Now in its 89th year of existence, the organization soldiers on, one of the city’s institutions dedicated to the survival of the Yiddish language. The group’s latest concert, which takes place Sunday, June 5 at Symphony Space, is merely the latest beachhead (95th and Broadway, 4:30 p.m., [212] 864-5400, www.symphonyspace.org).

The original version of this musical group was the Freiheit Gezang Farein (loosely, the Freedom Singers Organization), a leftist chorus affiliated with the Freiheit Yiddish-language newspaper. The chorus began rehearsing on the Lower East Side and gave its first concert in 1923 at Carnegie Hall, which suggests that it may have been pretty good. The identity of its first conductor, the great Yiddish art-song composer Lazar Weiner, would seem to confirm that surmise.

“Most of them were immigrants, and for all of them Yiddish was their first language,” says Binyumen Schaechter, who has been the music director since 1995. “Of course, back then Yiddish wasn’t their raison d’etre as it is for us today. They were more interested in progressive politics, and that was reflected in their repertoire. They sang a lot about labor issues and performed material written by people like Morris Rosenfeld, the ‘labor poet.’”

There are no members of the original group still around to ask, but Schaechter says that there seems to have been numerous interconnected choral groups rehearsing in different Jewish neighborhoods around the city, with some shared material. When they gathered together for a major concert in the early 1930s, they could boast an astounding 300 voices.

But the passing of the Yiddish-speaking generations of American Jews, along with the assimilation and suburbanization of their children and grandchildren, meant that when Schaechter was brought in as musical director the average ages of the singers was somewhere between 70 and 80, and the material they were doing was at best very simple.

“I felt I was doing a mitzvah, but it wasn’t musically fulfilling,” Schaechter recalls. When one of the members of the choir noted that the 75th anniversary would fall during the ’98 concert season and asked if they could do something special to commemorate it, Schaechter knew that he would have to bring in “ringers” to make it happen.

That was the beginning of a second life for the JPPC (a name it had taken on in 1948 as the Cold War was heating up).

“We started auditions in 2001, and over the course of the years, we’ve stretched ourselves more,” the musical director says. “We’re now doing the most difficult pieces we’ve ever attempted, and it’s sounding really good.”

The music has become more sophisticated, with thematic programming ruling the day.

“We’ve done programs of Yiddish operettas and operas, of songs by Gebertig and Warshavsky, of Peretz and Sholem Aleichem,” Schaechter says. “This year’s theme is the Yiddish folk song.” The concert is officially dubbed, “Love, Loss, Laughter: Favorite Yiddish Folk Songs.”

That choice presented an inevitable dilemma: how can you do a program dedicated to the Yiddish folk song without including “Tumbalalaika,” but how can you sing “Tumbalalaika” without falling into the slough of clichés?

“We have one world premiere on this program,” Schaechter promises. “And the irony is that it’s a world premiere of a new arrangement of ‘Tumbalalaika.’ No, it’s really unlike anything anyone has ever seen or heard. It gives a whole new perspective on the song.”

He admits sheepishly that he had a simple ulterior motive for creating the new arrangement: “I had to find one that would make me feel willing even to hear the song again.”

On the other hand, he admits, a lot of his audience now reflects the change in the demographic of the singers. “We have quite a few regular audience members in their 20s, and they’re bringing their parents to the concerts,” Schaechter says.

Maybe they haven’t had their fill of “Tumbalalaika.”

As for the big question of the future of Yiddish?

“We’re doing what we can,” Schaechter says with a grin.

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