A Jewish Musical Adventure

An impassioned, often heart-rending and sometimes playfully humorous performance by the Russian Chamber Arts Society took the audience on a Jewish Musical Adventure of Yiddish folksongs that spanned centuries of tradition from Eastern and Western Europe, Israel as well as the New World. As the RCAS’ Founder and Music Director Vera Danchenko-Stern explained, music flowed from the artists to the audience in what Rachmaninoff once expressed “from one heart and directly to another person’s heart.”  

Such was the intimate setting of the RCAS benefit concert at the home of Thais and Sasha Mark‘s home, that one could feel the lament, the joy, the devotion to God and the humor of the Jewish people who for centuries found their own expression through music and their own unique Yiddish language.  As Vera Danchenko explained, Yiddish was an important part of the life of Jewish people around the world and for centuries gave them a sense of identity that helped them overcome the anguish and travails they faced.

From beginning to end, the concert was a spiritual journey. The musical program opened with the familiar song “Shalom,” from the musical Milk and Honey, in a duet with Susana Poretsky, Mikhail Manevich, and Vera Dancheko-Stern at the piano. Composed by the famous Jerry Herman, a Jewish composer from Jersey City who created such great musicals as Hello Dolly, Mame and La Cage aux Folles, the song set the stage for a delightful evening. In the words of the song,

“Shalom, Shalom,
You’ll find Shalom
The nicest greeting you know;
It means bonjour, salud, and skoal
And twice as much as hello.
It means a million lovely things,
Like peace be yours,
Welcome home.
And even when you say goodbye,
You say goodbye with Shalom.”

The ensemble created a sense of immediacy that reflected the performers’ collective experiences. Mezzo soprano Susana Poretsky has sung with major opera companies such as the LA  Opera, the Met, Washington National Opera, La Scala and others, as well as performed with conductors such as Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur; Mikhail Manevich, Cantor at Washington Hebrew Congregation, has performed in all the major concert halls of Washington DC and pianist Vera Danchenko-Stern has made it her mission to preserve the often neglected repertoire of Russian chamber arts songs.

Also on the program were the virtuoso classical guitarist Anna Kusner, a graduate from the State Gnessin Music College in Moscow, and the Academy of Music in Jerusalem; the world renowned violinist Rafael Javadov and pianist conductor David Rhode, all of whom created a cohesive ensemble which captured the eclectic and vibrant quality of songs by Jewish composers from Russia, Poland, Spain, Israel and America. 

“Jerusalem of Gold” by Naomi Shemer, performed by the dynamic trio of Poretsky, Manevich and Danchenko-Stern, was often referred to as the unofficial second Jewish anthem. The composer was born in an Israeli Kibbutz in 1930 and was considered the first lady of song and poetry. It is interesting to note that the composer was inspired by a Basque folk melody in creating “Jerusalem of Gold,” highlighting that the peregrinations of musical melodies had no boundaries.

Mezzo Soprano Susana Poretsky’s choice of three tango selections was brilliant, as the richness and depth of her voice conveyed not only the passion of the tango, but it’s dramatic adaptation into Yiddish music. The composers of these tango pieces were exponents of Yiddish cabaret that originated in Western Europe much before the second world war when the confluence with Argentinian music took place. The tango “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieb,” by Alexander Olshanetsky, an American born in Odessa and a major figure of Yiddish theatre in New York City, energized the already enthusiastic audience.

The violinist Rafail Javadov took his acoustic instrumental performance to new heights with his Yiddish Medley, electrifying the air with excitement and joyfulness.

From the film Mamale, the song Maz’l was one of the many highlights of the concert. With lyrics by the famed Molly Picon it bemoans that “good fortune has come for others, why does it avoid me.” Mamale was an American film created in Poland in the thirties for American audiences, and starred the actress Molly Picon, known as the “Queen of 2nd Avenue Yiddish theatre,” and the first actress of Yiddish theatre to become a Star on Broadway. 

Cantor Manevich also introduced “A Lidele in Yiddish” (“Play Me a Little Song”) composed by L. Yampolsky and written in Russia. It was originally performed and made famous by the singer Mischa Alexandrovich, who was born in Riga Latvia and became an illustrious opera singer. He sang Yiddish songs in the Soviet Union at a time when it was dangerous to do so and when Russian Jews where leaving the Soviet Union fleeing persecution, particularly in the 1980s. Cantor Manevich recounted that in later years he performed with Mr. Alexandrovich, who migrated to Israel and then to the USA, still singing, although with a smaller voice but always “penetrating the heart.” Vera Danchenko also had the opportunity to perform with the late Alexandrovic in Canada.

In his warm and expressive tenor voice, Cantor Manevich captured the playfulness of the piece accompanied by violinist Rafael Javadov and Vera Danchenko-Stern…. “Play a joyful tune for me with heart and soul.”

Indeed, this was a memorable evening as these musicians applied their artistry with such fervor, such a refined sense of an ensemble that felt purely intuitive yet masterful. 

The evening’s spiritual message came to a full circle in the final song, “Idvu et Hashem” as Susana Poretsky recited the words of Psalm 100, “Serve the Lord with gladness. Come before his presence with singing.”

Mrs. Mary Kruger President of the Russian Chamber Society, exclaimed that the RCAS has reached its 14th season and its 15th Season will be launched on October 4 with a concert at the French Embassy, the theme of which will be “Russian Fairy Tales in Music.”

The mission of the RCAS to bring people together through music was best defined in a few words by Vera Danchenko-Stern, “We don’t need words to explain, but you just have to listen and music is the most wonderful bridge.”

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