It started with a teacher.
Sidney Krum, who came to New York from Poland as a child, had passed his bar exam, but he spent most of his professional life in New York City’s high schools. Much of the rest of his time he spent listening to, singing and collecting Yiddish music, eventually donating his collection to YIVO, where it became the core of what is now the Sidney Krum Jewish Music and Yiddish Theater Memorial Collection.
“YIVO has a wonderful collection of music,” says Yuval Waldman, an acclaimed violinist, conductor and instructor. “But music, if it’s not performed, is dead.”
This music, bit by bit, is being performed, thanks to its caretakers at YIVO. Appropriately enough, the concert series in which it is performed and which bears Krum’s name, has a strong educational component.
“In thinking how to properly honor him, it occurred to me that we could make these concerts an educational experience for the performers, not just the audience,” Jonathan Brent, executive director of YIVO, explains. “We bring in gifted young musicians in their teens and 20s, from all over the city’s institutions for musical education — Juilliard, Manhattan School, Mannes and others — and introduce them to this music, with Yuval [musical director of the program] teaching them the nuances and style. A lot of what makes this music distinctive and distinctively Jewish just isn’t written in the score.”
Today Brent readily admits that he didn’t know that this program was the first of its kind, but it is already showing green shoots, very close to home for the director himself.
“My daughter is a cellist who had learned a nigun [wordless melody] set by [Joachim] Stutschewsky for the program, and when she played it for her professor at Yale, he said it was one of the most beautiful pieces he had ever heard and insisted on her playing it for the department faculty,” Bent says, beaming. “This tiny thing — one piece of music, passed along to a music teacher who’s not even Jewish, and he wants her to play it for another group of teachers.”
Waldman, who programs the concerts as well, says that he is constantly thinking about what pieces deserve a showcase, which ones go well together and the many other considerations that go into building a musical program. After all, he has access to an immense collection, ranging from hazonos (cantorial music) to nigunim, from Yiddish theater songs to folk music.
It is the last that serves as the platform for this year’s program, he says.
“All of the pieces we will be performing have their basis in Eastern European Jewish folk song,” Waldman explains. “We have a piece that was composed in Terezin that we obtained from the Israeli collection of music from the ghetto there that has never been performed in the United States.”
Brent has ambitious plans for the future, expanding on both the educational and performance aspects of the concert series.
“We hope to develop a YIVO Chamber Ensemble that could actually travel,” he says. “We’re still in the beginning, but there is a core group of very young performers in the New York area. I would love to see them go to synagogues and JCCs both in the area and outside of it. A comparable group could be assembled in Chicago using the students from their distinguished music programs, or Boston or Philadelphia.”
Given the profusion of world-class music education available in the U.S., one could conceivably expand this vision almost indefinitely.
There’s certainly enough music to explore, Waldman says.
“Most of the pieces in the archives are unknown,” he says. “There is wonderful Yiddish-based music that just isn’t being played. It is the expression of a vibrant, living culture. We are bringing the music to these young artists who are giving it their energy and enthusiasm.”
He laughs, and concludes, “We’re only hampered by money and time.”
The latest in the series of Sidney Krum Young Artists Concerts will take place on Thursday, Nov. 17 (7 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History [15 W. 16th St.]. For information, call (212) 868-4444, www.yivoinstitute.org).