Tonight was the opening night concert of the 2018 Ashkenaz Festival at Koerner Hall, an unforgettable evening of Yiddish culture titled “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II”.
For awhile Soviet scholars worked to assemble an archive of the songs of the Yiddish resistance to the Nazis, comprised of men, women & children. While Stalin is spoken of heroically in many of the songs, Stalin is himself lurking villainously as subtext for the story, as the political winds shifted, the scholars were all arrested, and their work presumed lost: until miraculously it turned up in the 21st century.
I’m proud of this on so many levels:
• As a Torontonian
• As a guy with some allegiance to Jewish culture, still trying to figure it all out. While I was brought up Christian I look Jewish enough that people jump to conclusions based on the size of my nose.
• As a fan of thorough multi-disciplinary scholarship, and as an alumnus of the University of Toronto, whose presence in this concert was front & centre.
Yiddish Glory was a musical & dramatic event but I feel first & foremost that it’s a careful work of history. Violinist Psoy Korolenko and Professor Anna Shternshis, ( Professor of Yiddish Studies at the U of T’s Centre for Jewish Studies) are called the “creators of the project” in the program, work that is at once curatorial & dramaturgical.
There is an album of these songs available.
What we got tonight was so much more than that, and ideal as Shternshis presented contextual introductions to many of the performances, like a dramaturg explaining the framework for what had been assembled for us. I don’t know the extent of Korolenko’s role in preparation, except that he’s mentioned as “matching music to archival texts”, which in some cases meant re-purposing music for the project.
Some songs are satirical, as Hitler turns up a few times. Some are bleak, despondent, sad. But the overall contour is hopeful, as the Soviets and Stalin are beating Hitler & the Nazis. Tonight we were hearing songs that have not been heard before, brought to light by scholarship & good fortune. I can’t help wondering if at least part of the reason that these songs survived—in spite of Stalin’s purge of the historians preserving them in the USSR—is because Stalin is so often spoken of as a hero, as the beloved leader. I’m reminded of the scene in The Death of Stalin, that I saw so recently, when the peasants arrived for his funeral, heart-broken at the death of this murderous S.O.B. (I apologize to any canines who might be offended at the usage). Throughout the concert we’re hearing great things about Stalin & the Red Army, and ridicule of Hitler & the Nazis.
Excuse me that it’s almost an afterthought to mention the brilliance of the singers & instrumentalists, whose music was given such depth by the background we were given by Shternshis. Korolenko was inevitably star of his own show, aided by a fabulous band, including Sergiu Popa on accordion, Mikhail Savichez, guitar, Beth Silver cello, trumpeter David Buchbinder and Sir Julian Milkis, clarinet. There were some last minute substitutions so I may not have all the names correct. It was a colossal labour of love, a collaboration among lots of eager and thoughtful individuals. Sasha Lurie was fortunately available as a substitute for Sophie Milman, who you can see on the video but who was unwell tonight and unavailable. Sergei Erdenko did the arrangements, for example. While the opening included a long list of thank you’s for funding, this was somehow different, as the expressions of gratitude, the explanations of the origins were important, vital acknowledgements.
My thoughts drift to another project, the Jeremy Dutcher album I wrote about recently, also seeking to preserve a language & culture. There seems to be a natural alliance there, so many parallels.
The songs are in my head already, but I need to get that CD . The 2018 Ashkenaz Festival continues until Sept 3rd.