Monday, May 02, 2011

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater

I watched The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater on April 6, but was too caught up with NaPo to record the event. Grandparents of the conductor and narrator of the evening, Michael Tilson Thomas, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky were pioneers of Yiddish Theater in New York City. The program gives the historical origins of the art:

European Yiddish theater was officially born only five years before Boris Thomashefsky emigrated to America. Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), generally regarded as the "Father of Yiddish Theater," wrote and presented the first productions in Jassy, Romania, in 1876.... Having himself been a badkhen (an Askenazic traveling minstrel) for many years, he now set out to create a type of Jewish opera or operetta, for which he interwove music from synagogue chants, religious hymns, holiday songs, Hasidic tunes, Yiddish folk songs, Slavic melodies, and European grand opera arias....

Boris Thomashefsky writes in his Autobiography that, as a boy of five in Kaminska, while learning liturgical numbers from his grandfather, the Talner Kasn (Chief Cantor), he was also singing Goldfaden songs. In America, a number of Goldfaden's operettas became mainstays of Boris Thomashefsky's early repertory, including Koldunye (The Witch, often referred to as a Yiddish Cinderella story), the musical drama chosen by the enterprising 15-year-old for the first presentation of Yiddish theater in America (New York City, 1881). It also includes Shulamis, produced in Boston's Music Hall in 1888 and featuring 15-year-old Bessie Kaufman, who had just run away from home to join Boris Thomashefsky and become a starke....

The evening was a tapestry of story, song and music, telling the story of the couple's rise and fall. Judy Blazer was a spirited Bessie, while Shuler Hensley played the charismatic Boris convincingly. Ronit Widmann-Levy sang the various female roles in the operas. Dark-haired Eugene Brancoveanu, who sang the male roles, was beautiful in both face and voice. He was the right choice to sing the final song of the evening, the title song from Vi mener libn (The Way Men Love) (1919), written by Joseph Rumshinsky. The evening's program was a story of love, for spouses and other lovers, for ancestors, for the magic of theater. And that love was not only available to Jews, who packed Avery Fisher Hall that night. I sat beside a fellow goy, an older woman whose dead husband was Jewish. For her, the evening was filled with memories of her husband's love for the music.

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