Philomusica’s Jewish Expressions
Classical music aficionados: Raise your hand if you’re familiar with Sholom Secunda.
His String Quartet in C minor opened Philomusica Quartet’s Jewish Expressions concert on Sunday afternoon at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Secunda — perhaps better known as the composer of American Yiddish musical theater’s most well-known song, Bay mir bistu sheyn — had planned on becoming a classical composer. This ambitious 30-minute quartet shares roots with other late-19th century composers. Like Borodin, Smetana and Dvorak, Secunda utilized folk melodies from his own culture as a basis for composition. He draws upon Jewish melodies and motifs, mostly from Hebrew liturgy. The energetic first movement leads into a stark and meditative second. The beginning of the third movement could have been written by Haydn; the bouncy youthfulness, the humor, and strict adherence to form point toward Haydn’s influence. Classical organization also figures in fourth movement. In this quartet we hear a composer trying to find his own voice.
Czechoslovakian-born Viktor Ullmann’s Spring Quartet No. 3, Op. 46, is in four connected movements. Ullmann composed this quartet while a prisoner at Theresienstadt in January of 1943. Thereseinstadt was something in between a concentration camp and a Jewish ghetto. There, prisoners were able to maintain a cultural life. Ullmann served not only as a resident composer, but also as a critic. His life and musical output were cut short when he was sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz in October of 1944. His quartet is filled with lovely material for cellist Adrien Zitoun, and he played Ullmann’s lonely cello lines with perfect phrasing and emotional intent.
Husband and wife team Alexander Mandl and Jeanyi Kim are completely different types of leaders. Mandl is bold in the first violin chair, playing like a virtuoso soloist. His lines exploded out of the texture in Secunda’s quartet like water bursting through a dam. Kim has a more subtle approach. Her lines were nuanced and never stood completely apart from the textures created by her collaborators. Her highly invested emotional playing made the Ullmann and the Mendelssohn sing. Both approaches worked well and added additional interest to an already rich and incredibly diverse program.
Philomusica presented Jewish Expressions on Sunday, April 11th at 2 p.m. For more information, visit the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.