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Two Worlds, Plus A Few More: Benjy Fox-Rosen’s “Tsvey Veltn”

Two Worlds, Plus A Few More: Benjy Fox-Rosen’s “Tsvey Veltn”

The phrase “Two Worlds” comes from the late Mordechai Gebirtig’s poem of the same name. It refers not, as you might expect, to the old world and the new, but to those of the living and the dead.

Last week at YIVO, an audience of young, old and middle-aged klezmer fans shared an extraordinary performance by Benjy Fox-Rosen and his colleagues, Avi Fox-Rosen, Michael Winograd, Patrick Farrell and Jason Nazary, as they performed the new cd, “Tsvey Veltn” – Two Worlds. With words by Gebirtig (1877-1942) — the much-loved Yiddish language poet from Krakow, shot by the Nazis as he was marched from the ghetto toward a transport train — the album is a cycle of six songs from before the war and six after, chosen and set to music by Fox-Rosen.

The album is structured by multiple pairs of worlds: historically, they imply the worlds of (relative) peace before 1939 and the far worse world after the Nazi occupation of Poland. To Fox-Rosen, personally, the two worlds meant his Brooklyn and Gebirtig’s Kazimierz, the Jewish neighborhood in Krakow where he lived and worked.

Musically, the old world of klezmer and the newer one of jazz and contemporary classical music are equal partners here. Fox-Rosen uses new or newly repopularized techniques such as dissonance, repetition and musical quotation, but grounds the melodies in the plangent harmonic minor that is klezmer’s home. One of the album’s most powerful moments comes in the only piece not composed by Fox-Rosen: the wordless “Glokn” (Bells), credited to Michael Winograd, Daniel Blacksberg and Tyshawn Sorey, in which a single immense note from Winograd’s clarinet evokes the longest tekiah gedolah you’ve ever heard and the siren in Israel on Yom HaShoah.

The key to “Tsvey Veltn” as Fox-Rosen remarked after the show, is ambiguity, irresolvable tension. Gebirtig’s songs from the war have an unforgettable fury, and some, such as “Shik a Mabul” (Send a Flood), embrace despair. But misery and loss are countered with energetic resistance elsewhere. The humor of “Urloyb” (Time Off), in which a worker begs for a week’s vacation, is irresistible, while the tender “Shifrele’s Portrait” shows the poet’s love for his daughter (and quotes Adrienne Cooper’s “Sholem Lid”). “A Zuniker Shtral” (A Sunbeam) the anthemic finale, affirms with deep irony and joy, on the evidence of a single sunbeam, that “soon the world will be bright and free – /For everyone! And also for you, Jews.”

By the time this post reaches readers, Benjy Fox-Rosen will have moved to Vienna with his wife; thus, the concert was a once-only event. But its point was to launch the cd, which this writer urges you to acquire.

Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.

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