Music Feature: Follow the Lieder — Discovering Lazar Weiner’s Yiddish Art Song

When the Boston Jewish Music Festival presented a special afternoon of Lazar Weiner’s Yiddish Art Songs, it became clear that it’s time for a reappraisal that will bring these small, intense gems back into broader musical circulation.

By Debra Cash

Prolific composer Lazar Weiner. Photo: Milken Archive

Yehudi Wyner was two years old when his father wrote a solo piano piece that he presumed—no, expected—his little boy would grow up to play. Last week, that child, now himself in his early 80s, sat down at a piano in Boston’s Old South Meeting House to play Lazar Weiner’s art songs.

Lazar Weiner, born to a shoemaker’s family in 1897 in the town of Cherkassy outside Kiev, had been a boy soprano in the choir of the Brodsky synagogue. Soon after, he was engaged by the Kiev Opera chorus where he sang on stage along with the great, Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. From the beginning of his musical life, Weiner participated in a culture that bridged the synagogue and the concert hall. He grew as a musician and a man in a Russian-Jewish, and later American-Jewish, environment that was actively questioning both the radical potential of modern art and the nature of distinctive Jewish identity as it played out within the shifting pressures of secularization, emigration, socialism, Zionism, and eventually, the annihilation of most of the Yiddish-speaking world.

A prolific composer over his six decades long career and, for much of his adult life in New York, a charismatic choral leader and vocal coach, Lazar Weiner’s works are rarely recorded or performed. (Apparently, some recordings have been produced but not yet released by the Milken Archive of Jewish Music. Just this past fall, Transcontinental Music published the first of a projected three volume set of Weiner’s art songs.) When the Boston Jewish Music Festival presented a special afternoon of Weiner’s Yiddish Art Songs (March 4), it became clear that it’s time for a reappraisal that will bring these small, intense gems back into broader musical circulation.

A few days before that event on one of this winter’s rare sleeting afternoons, Yehudi Wyner, wearing a blue, fleece jacket and turquoise, felt beret, was prepared for a rehearsal. He’s a charming man who easily slips between irreverent personal stories (his father changed the spelling of his son’s name so as to preclude the New York pronunciation that implied “either a hot dog or a penis”), bagatelles of musical anecdotes (Brahms “shlepped Debussy to Carmen”), and penetrating summaries of the structural issues underlying specific classical forms. Wyner’s academic posts have included stints heading the composition department at Yale and teaching at Brandeis, Harvard, Cornell, and SUNY Purchase. In 2006, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his intricately percussive, sun-drenched piano concerto “Chiavi in mano.” Wyner composes and rehearses in a book-and-music cluttered garage behind his Medford home that has been rehabbed into a cozy working music studio.

As he explained, Lazar Weiner was already a young composer in New York in the early 1920s—and had been working as a piano player to accompany silent movies—when he took the initiative to write to Joel Engel, a composer and musicologist who had been associated with the Gesellschaft fur Judische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) in St. Petersburg. Engel was impressed with Weiner’s compositions, which Wyner describes as more Russian than Yiddish (although he had already written the gorgeously hushed Shtile Tener to a poem by Yiddish poet Nahum Minkoff), but Engel made a suggestion that would change the young composer’s life. “You’re a talented young man,” Engel wrote. “Why don’t you use your Jewish background?”

While Wyner insists his father had a strong anticlerical streak, he also expressed spiritual yearnings; and while for much of his career he made his living at Jewish institutions such as the Workman’s Circle, Hebrew Union College (the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary), and the Central Synagogue in New York where he was music director for more than 40 years, Weiner insisted that his compositions belonged to the broader milieu of secular art song. After all, he counted among his colleagues American composers Milton Babbit, Aaron Copland, and Charles Ives.

Although some of his compositions—in particular, “A Nign”—are sometimes credited and anthologized as folksongs, nothing could be further from the case. Lazar Weiner used to say “if I want folksongs, I’ll write them myself.”

Folk music and art songs serve different audiences. The structure and harmonic character that makes folksongs easy to learn and sing together, knitting a sense of community and engendering memories along with the tunes, are very different than the inward-focused solos of the art song repertoire that, no matter what language they are written in, depend on expert musicianship and are intended for sophisticated ears. At the Boston Jewish Music Festival performance, Weiner’s works were closer to Winterreise than to Yiddish songs you’d learn at Jewish summer camp.

Yehudi Wyner had exacting standards for recruiting the singers for this recital. The singers had to have Yiddish as a second language or easily accessible to them. Facility in German would not do, as German habits would make it too easy to turn the Yiddish “Eay-n” into the German “Eye-n” and that, Wyner says, “would drive my father bananas.” Moreover, Wyner was committed to insuring that the performers could convey the musical and poetic elements of these songs with full awareness of their cultural references. Otherwise, he noted, “it’s no different from a student playing a piece of Beethoven without tearing his guts out.”

Soprano Ilana Davidson seemed ideally equipped to come to the music with that deep understanding. The daughter of Charles Davidson, a cantor colleague Wyner has known all his life, Ilana Davidson opened the program with one of Weiner’s best known works, the 1922 Dos Gold Fun Dayne Oygn (The Gold in Your Eyes) floating pure notes over an impressionistic piano trilling that ran like water.
Lynn Torgove, a mezzo-soprano perhaps best known for her long affiliation with the Cantata Singers and who plays an active role in the Cantorial Ordination Program at Hebrew College, offered a darkly mysterious 1925 lullaby and A Maysele (A Little Story), a faux naïf tale by an urbane and sophisticated composer that on first hearing seems that it would be at home in a popular, Yiddish operetta like Goldfaden’s Shulamis.

One could blame the odd acoustics of Old South Meeting House—made for persuasive speech, not song—for the way young cantor Joshua Breitzer’s forthright tenor in three very moving poems by the great spiritual leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came across as thin and less finely shaped but opera singer David Kravitz’s forte could have knocked out the historic building’s windows. Kravitz’s communicative power is unmistakable: you didn’t need a Yiddish-English dictionary to understand the moods he was putting across. (In light of this performance, it will be of special interest to hear Kravitz in the role of the Biblical patriarch Abraham in Boston Lyric Opera’s Clemency by James MacMillan next season.) Finally, 82-year-old Robert Abelson, who studied with and had been a colleague of Lazar Weiner’s, gave a cinematic reading to songs that included one where Weiner reworked the Holocaust resistance anthem “Ani Maamin (I Believe)” into a portrait of Jews singing in their camp barracks. With the cantorial sob that was a leitmotif of 2nd Avenue, Yiddish musical theater style, Abelson’s singing was admittedly over the top but nonetheless heartfelt in its own way. Yehudi Wyner was, of course, the ideal pianist: fluent, clear, and stressing the harmonics and inner voicings under each song’s melodic line in a way that complicated and sometimes even argued against each song’s overt message.

Yehudi Wyner told me that when he was a young composer, his father would sometimes pass new compositions to him to “look over.” I was often impatient,” he recalled, “but if I ran into any harmonic awkwardness, it was a puzzle I could solve.”

Lazar Weiner was incapable of revising his scores, but he’d tell his son “do whatever you like, just don’t make it complicated.” Luckily, he never told Yehudi not to make it beautiful.

C 2012 Debra Cash

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