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New Inspirations for Jewish Music: A Review of the Concert Inaugurating this Year’s POLIN Music Festival

Magdalena Kozłowska and Maria Sławek


The POLIN Music Festival is an event dedicated to the broad spectrum of Jewish music. It has been taking place at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw for six years. Since its inception, the festival, created and curated by violinist Michael Guttman and Kajetan Pochyra, the head of the museum’s music stage„ has featured outstanding classical music performers from both the domestic and international scenes.

This year, the concert inaugurating the 6th edition of the festival took place on February 23rd at the POLIN Auditorium, although a less formal prologue was held the day before. During the prologue, compositions including and all the days were purple by this year’s POLIN Music Festival resident composer, Alex Weiser, were performed.

Weiser’s premiere work commissioned by the POLIN Museum called Tfiles for clarinet and symphony orchestra was performed during the inauguration, alongside works by Henryk Wars, Leonard Bernstein, and Alex Dorman. Tfiles (Prayers) is a composition inspired by the poetry of Kadya Molodowsky. In her poem of the same title, Molodowsky expresses the enigmatic nature of prayer, reflecting on the act of seeking connection with God amidst the chaos of life. Weiser encountered Molodowsky’s work during Yiddish classes and found her poetry to offer profound insights into humanity’s place in the modern world. Though Molodowsky’s poetry has Jewish and Yiddish roots, Weiser believes it holds universal relevance, which he sought to capture in his musical composition. While Weiser avoided a klezmer style, he drew inspiration from the harmonies and textures of Jewish music. He chose to convey the essence of Molodowsky’s poetry through instrumental means, allowing his musical imagination to interpret her themes without directly using her words. Weiser structured Tfiles akin to a song, aiming to follow both the content and structure of her poetry and creating a harmonious fusion of music and literature.

Prayers by Kadya Molodowsky

Don’t let me fall
Like a stone that drops on the hard ground.
And don’t let my hands become dry
As the twigs of tree
When the wind beats down the last leaves.
And when the storm rips dust from the earth
Angry and howling,
Don’t let me become the last fly
Trembling terrified on a windowpane.
Don’t let me fall.
I have so much prayer,
But, as a blade of Your grass in a distant, wild field
Loses a seed in the lap of the earth
And dies away,
Sow in me Your living breath,
As You sow a seed in earth.

II

I still don’t know whom
I still don’t know why I ask.
A prayer lies bound in me
And implores a god,
And implores a name.
I pray
In the field
In the noise of the street,
Together with the wind, when it runs before my lips,
A prayer lies bound in me,
And implores a god
And implores a name.

III

I lie on the earth,
I kneel
In the ring of my horizons,
And stretch my hands
With a prayer
To the west, when the sun sets
To the east, when it rises there
To each spark
That it show me the light,
And make my eyes bright,
To each worm that glows in the darkness at night,
That it shall bring its wonder before my heart
And redeem the darkness that is enclosed in me.

1922

translated from Yiddish by Kathryn Hellerstein

This piece was translated into Polish for the festival by Joanna Dobijańska, Benon Gołowkow, Lea Kuhn, Barbara Lewandowska, and Monika Nestorowicz during Yiddish classes at the University of Warsaw under the guidance of Monika Polit. The Polish version provided accessibility and enriched an understanding of the poem for festival attendees.

It is worth noting that the POLIN Music Festival aims also to foster a sense of community through music, extending beyond the confines of traditional concert halls. To engage attendees with the cultural and historical context of the festival, organizers also introduced walking tours this year inspired by the life and works of no other but Kadya Molodowsky. Led by knowledgeable guides, students from the University of Warsaw’s Jewish studies program, participants embarked on a journey through the streets of Warsaw, retracing the footsteps of Molodowsky and delving into her poems, experiencing them firsthand in the Yiddish language. These walks provided a unique opportunity for attendees to connect with the rich cultural heritage of Polish Jewry. The inaugural walk, held just before the festival’s commencement, drew over twenty individuals, ranging from seasoned enthusiasts to young participants, who were captivated by the passionate narratives shared by the guides.

Interestingly, the entire inaugural concert was titled Tfiles/Prayers, referring not only to Weiser’s new composition but also to the other pieces performed that evening, all with a prayerful theme.

The evening began with an overture for orchestra called Ma’alot by Henryk Wars, which is described as an elegy dedicated to the memory of children murdered in a terrorist attack in Ma’alot in 1974. The piece was performed by The Polish Radio Orchestra in Warsaw, under the baton of its director, Michał Klauza. In interwar Poland, Wars was known as an author of famous tangos and songs performed by exquisite Polish stars. Ma’alot was composed a few years before the composer’s death, after many years spent in Hollywood, which is clearly reflected in the instrumentation and character of the piece.

Following the overture, the highlight of the evening in terms of composition was the Polish premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Halil, featuring flutist Anna Karpowicz. In Halil, Hebrew for flute, the flute is the main protagonist of the piece, dedicated to Yadin Tenenbaum, a young soldier killed during the Yom Kippur War.

Bernstein himself described the piece as follows:

Halil is formally different from any other work I have ever written, but it is like much of my other music and its struggle between tonal and non-tonal forces. In this case, I sense that struggle as involving wars and the threat of wars, the overwhelming desire to live, and the consolations of art, love, and hope for peace. 1 1 Leonard Bernstein, alil: Nocturne for Flute, Percussion, and Piano (New York and London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1981): iii.

The dialogues between the soloist and the orchestra were beautifully executed that evening, especially notable at the moments where several flutes played and dialogued with each other – it created an almost stereo-like effect. Karpowicz’s interpretation was filled with concentration and understanding of the specific aura of the piece; her sound was vivid, juicy and subtle at the same time. It isn’t the type of piece that incites frenetic applause – it leaves the audience with a sense that the sound of the flute fades away just like a human’s breath.

After the intermission, the premiere of Alex Weiser’s Clarinet Concerto Tfiles was performed, with Andrzej Ciepliński as the soloist. Weiser composes warm, intimate, emotional music – its sound akin to film or illustrative music. There are no experiments with form, sound or instrumentation. The well-composed triptych, inspired by Molodovsky’s poetry, was performed somewhat monotonously, and the soloist truly came to life only in the fantastic, klezmer-inspired (though honestly not fitting the overall concept of the evening very well) encore.

At this point, the concert could have ended – the final piece, performed by pianist MacKenzie Melemed with the Polish Radio Orchestra and Klauza conducting, was verbose, bombastic, very loud, and irritatingly repetitive. Although both the soloist and the orchestra, as well as the conductor, did their best to make Avner Dorman’s Piano Concerto sound its best, it must be said that perhaps if the piece had been cut by at least half, it would have worked in its favor. Unfortunately, in this case, we had the impression that not only was it a weak composition, but it also clearly didn’t fit the meditative character of the concert, which was dedicated, among other things, to Alex Dancyg and other Israeli hostages held by Hamas since October 2023.

It is clear that the festival curator, Kajetan Prochyra, is constantly seeking new inspirations for Jewish music, aiming to present new compositions, and engaging in interesting international collaborations. As usual, the festival seemed too short to us, and we eagerly await the next edition!

MLA STYLE
Kozłowska, Magdalena, and Maria Sławek. “New Inspirations for Jewish Music: A Review of the Concert Inaugurating this Year's POLIN Music Festival.” In geveb, April 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/polin-concert-review.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kozłowska, Magdalena, and Maria Sławek. “New Inspirations for Jewish Music: A Review of the Concert Inaugurating this Year's POLIN Music Festival.” In geveb (April 2024): Accessed May 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Magdalena Kozłowska

Magdalena Kozłowska holds a PhD in Jewish Studies and an MA in cultural studies from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. She works as an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw, Poland.

Maria Sławek

Maria Sławek is a Polish violinist, lecturer and researcher.