Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In Review – Milken Archive of American Jewish Music – Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage

Founded by Lowell Milken, the Milken Archive's goal is:
...to record, preserve and disseminate the music that has and will continue to emerge from the unique confluence of Jews reconnecting from across the Diaspora to the freedom of America. Over the three-and-a-half centuries since Jews first arrived on these shores, the sacred and secular body of work that has developed provides a powerful means of expressing the multilayered saga of American Jewry. At the same time, this music reflects a remarkable universality of the immigrant and broader human experience.
This three CD set is a compilation of songs from the legendary American Yiddish theater. The first disc focuses on Abraham Ellstein, the second on Sholom Secunda and Alexander Olshanetsky, and the third on Joseph Rumshinsky. Each disc also includes select songs from other songwriters of their circle,.

The music on all three albums is performed by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Elli Jaffe, with a handful of tracks played by the Barcelona Symphony. The singers on this collection are Robert Abelson, Bruce Adler, Robert Bloch, Joanne Borts, Amy Goldstein, Benzion Miller, Elizabeth Shammash, Nell Snaidas, and Simon Spiro, all of who are excellent here. In the main, these are solo features, but there is the occasional duet as well.

In many cases, there are no extant scores (and perhaps never were) full orchestrations of these tunes. For this project, the Milken Archive hired reconstruction orchestrators to create historically considered orchestrations. The results are quite good. The primary focus here, as with most songs from musicals, is the lyrics, and so the arrangements stay in the background, for the most part, tastefully accompanying the well-chosen vocalists.

The material presented includes a nice cross-section of songs, and a listen to this series gives an excellent overview of Yiddish Theater music.

The songs presented touch on subjects like Jewish guilt in “A Brivele Der Mamen”, and pro-worker/anti-capitalism sentiment in“Fifty-Fifty” and “Dir A Nikl, Mir A Nikl”. There’s love in “Oygn” and “Oy, Mame, Bin Ikh Farlibt”, pathos in “Der Dishvasher”, longing for the shtetl in “Slutsk”, and optimism for life in America in “Lebn Zol Kolumbus”. Naturally, there’s humor in songs like “A Malke Af Peysekh” and “Ikh Bin A “Boarder” Bay Mayn Vayb”. There are even mussar-laden songs like “Watch Your Step” and “Oyb S’iz Geven Gut Far Mayn Mamen”, as well as a liturgical setting of “Hamavdil”

My grandmother’s husband, a longtime Yiddish editor and writer, is fond of reminiscing about the music of the Yiddish theater, which in his day was considered heresy for a young Chasid to listen to. “A mohlige apikorsim” he muses, pointing out how even the largely secular Yiddish theater was able to produce passionate music rich with pride and faith in the Jewish people. He is wont to cite lyrics from “Dos Pintele Yid” which is not included in this collection, but the same holds true for songs like Meyerowitz's "Got Un Zayn Mishpet Iz Gerekht", performed here by Robert Abelson, Rumshinsky’s “Shma Yisro'el” and Secunda's "Dos Yidishe Lid", both performed here by Benzion Miller.

These albums come with incredibly detailed liner notes, which include background information about the songs and the shows the songs came from. Translations of the lyrics are provided as well. The jackets do not provide the original Yiddish lyrics, but those are available for download from The Milken Archive website. It takes a bit of looking around, as each song has its own page, but you can find them on the website. I’d have liked to see one page with all of the Yiddish lyrics, including the text typeset in Yiddish as well as transliteration.

It’s hard to narrow it down, but fave tracks include Bruce Adler’s turn on “Hudl Mitn Strudel” (which features David Krakauer on clarinet), his exuberant rendition of Kanapoff’s “Hu-Tsa-Tsa” with terrific comedic timing, Joanne Borts’s peppy “Watch Your Step”, Simon Spiro’s take on “Vos Iz Geven Iz Geven Un Nito” and Robert Abelson’s somber singing on “Got Un Zayn Mishpot Iz Gerekht” and Benzion Miller’s presentation of “Dos Yidishe Lid”.

Amazon has the discs here:

Volume one:

Volume two:

Volume three:

Up next, a review of clarinetist Aaron Novik's "Secrets of Secrets" release on Tzadik.