Tapping into the healing properties of art

Hedy Weiss guides an artistic journey towards healing from three sources.

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Hershey Felder at the piano. Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder.

Vaccine or no vaccine, the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much with us, and probably will continue to plague the world for some time to come. But while artists and arts organizations have suffered immensely throughout the past year, they also have refused to be silenced. Theater has adapted itself to the small screen. Music has been recorded. Books have been published. Here are three ideal, yet very different examples of art that might help ease the long trek back to "normal."

Hershey Felder explores Sholem Aleichem:

It was Fiddler on the Roof , the landmark 1964 Broadway musical, that introduced much of the world--both Jews and non-Jews--to Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for "May peace be upon you"), the pen name of the Yiddish writer Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, who was born in Ukraine in 1859 and died in New York in 1916. And while that single (and singular) show suggested the essential spirit of the writer frequently referred to as "The Jewish Mark Twain"--the man who captured shtetl life, and the ironic humor so essential to coping with adversity--it only suggested part of his legacy.

Now, Hershey Felder, a master of musical biography whose singular portraits of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Leonard Bernstein draw on his unique blend of skills as an actor, writer, and concert pianist, is about to raise the virtual curtain on the world premiere of Before Fiddler--the latest installment in his formidable series of streamed shows, Hershey Felder Presents - Live from Florence (referring to the Italian city he now calls home).

And this time, as opposed to his usual solo turns, he will have company in the form of the Klezmerata Fiorentina, a group of virtuoso musicians from Florence's Orchestra del Maggio Musicale, a leading Italian symphony and opera orchestra whose music directors have included Riccardo Muti and Zubin Mehta. The Klezmerata is led by violinist Igor Polesitsky--who draws on his Ukrainian-Jewish roots.

"This ensemble is quite different from American klezmer players," said Felder. "They have a very traditional approach, maybe because they are European, and World War II is still not the 'distant past' for them. I've always wanted to do a piece about Aleichem, and, hearing these musicians, the whole thing came together. In the show, they figure as voices from the past--ghosts--as well as figures from Aleichem's present. And there are points at which I will play along with them, as a kind of encore."

About Aleichem, Felder noted: "He had a remarkable life, and was the victim of all sorts of things [from a lost family fortune, to immigration to the U.S. in order to escape the pogroms of 1905]. While writing he was known to laugh hysterically--both at and with his characters. It also is said that he loved (and attended) readings of his will, and that as part of that will he required it be read every year on the anniversary of his death. And that became the concept for the show."

Felder, born in Montreal in 1968, is the son of immigrants from Poland and Hungary. He grew up in a Yiddish-speaking family and is fluent in Yiddish, and at the age of 14, he became a member of the Yiddish Theatre in Montreal, which had a vibrant Yiddish-speaking community. At 20, he served as music director for the very first production of Fiddler that was entirely in Yiddish.

"Above all, what my experience in the Yiddish theater taught me was that before Fiddler , there was Tevye der Milchiker--the Dairyman--and he was so much more than the character the world knew.

Before Fiddler runs Feb. 7-14. For tickets, and additional information about Felder's two subsequent world premiere shows (about Puccini and Rachmaninoff), visit hersheyfelder.net.


The haunting sounds of Golijov's 'Falling Out of Time:'

Whenever I've heard a performance of work by Osvaldo Golijov--whether at the Ravinia Festival, or the Harris Theater (as part of the score for a work performed by Visceral Dance Chicago)--I've wondered why the magical music of this Argentinean-born composer of Romanian-Jewish heritage (who studied in Israel and lives in the U.S.) is not performed far more often.

A recent New York Times story about Golijov explained that following a period of great acclaim he fell into a decade-long depression. But inspired by Falling Out of Time , a poetic novel by the Israeli writer David Grossman that evokes the search of a bereaved father for his dead son, he has emerged from that difficult time and written an 80-minute song cycle bearing the same name.

The recording, by Silkroad Ensemble (released on In a Circle Records, and performed by artists from the U.S., Argentina, Venezuela, China, Holland, and Iran), is altogether haunting. Its complex mix of musical influences evokes the sort of cosmic voyage so emblematic of Golijov's music. As he himself has described the piece: "It is a harp of a thousand hairs [in the form of] an epic lament."

A digital version of the work is available exclusively on Apple Music; a physical CD is on Bandcamp. For a closer look at Golijov and his music, watch this on YouTube: bit.ly/osvaldogolijovtalk.

The complex mind of poet-philosopher Heinrich Heine:

The latest entry in Yale University Press' ever-expanding, engagingly written Jewish Lives series is "Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution," by George Prochnik.

Until reading this book I knew Heine primarily as the poet whose youthful, fiercely honest love poems--full of ardor, bitterness, and self-mockery--were collected in Buch der Lieder (published in 1827, when he was barely 30), and famously set to music by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. But beyond the poetry and romanticism there was a great deal more--a passionate political thinker and philosopher deeply engaged in the major movements in Germany and France in the first half of the 19th century. Often ambivalent in his thinking, he was profoundly aware of his Jewish roots and the forces of antisemitism. And like many German Jews of his time, as a young man he made an early career-driven move and converted to Protestantism.

As Prochnik notes, Heine once said: "True dreaming began with the Jews. Our descendants will shudder when they come to read what a ghostly life we led, how are humanity was cleft in two and only one half had a real life."


Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the  Chicago Sun-Times  from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for  WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the  Chicago Tonight  program.

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