The 21st annual Berkeley Jewish Music Festival got off to a sizzling start last Saturday with a soul-stirring concert by the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars at Oakland’s First Congregational Church.
The group combines the celebratory sounds of klezmer with the distinctive styles of their native city and musical genres from as far away as Morocco. Along with electrifying music that got the packed house dancing, the concert included heartfelt appeals for support of ongoing Hurricane Katrina relief and to close the concert, a marriage proposal from drummer David Sobel to his sweetheart at the foot of the stage.
If that sounds like a show that can’t be topped, you haven’t yet looked at the festival’s amazing schedule of concerts.
This Berkeley event is admired throughout the world, but its stature hasn’t stopped the festival from booking an adventurous lineup each year.
This year’s program features “Bagels and Bongos: A Tribute to Irving Fields,” with top New York percussionist Roberto Rodriguez and his Septeto Rodriguez presenting their innovative mix of Cuban and Jewish traditions at Oakland’s First Congregational Church Saturday at 8 p.m.
Whether you want to dance to the sounds of klezmer or the Cuban styles of son and danzon, or just love great music, this is well worth exploring. Concert dedicatee Irving Fields is, at age 90, one of the last of the Tin Pan Alley generation of songwriters, and is the creator of the 1959 classic album Bagels and Bongos, one of the first attempts at Jewish-Latin fusion. A special guest will be leading New York jazz pianist Anthony Coleman.
Sunday night’s concert at Temple Sinai in Oakland celebrates the Jewish cantorial tradition with two of the world’s most renowned performers of Jewish liturgical music: Chicago’s Alberto Mizrahi, a featured performer in PBS’s “Three Cantors” special, and New York’s Jack Mendelson, subject of the recent hit documentary film “A Cantor’s Tale.”
Again giving a twist to tradition, the program will feature Coleman accompanying Mendelson and a trio of leading performers of Middle Eastern Jewish music joining the Greek-born Mizrahi.
The festival has always introduced new artists to the Bay Area and even to the United States, and this continues with first American performance by Yahudice at Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison St, at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 19.
Led by vocalist Hadass Pal Yarden, this virtuoso group of Turkish classical musicians will perform the music of Turkey’s Sephardic Jews.
Festival Director Ellie Shapiro discovered the group on a trip to Turkey, and explains, “Hadass is the leading authority on this music, and she’s put out an album that’s become an underground hit in the U.S. This is a genre that’s dying out, and she’s made it her life’s work to perpetuate it. That’s part of our work too, to make sure this culture continues to live and to thrive.”
There’s also no shortage of local artists. The March 16 program, “Jewish Fringes,” features music by four East Bay composers exploring Jewish themes. Presented at the Berkeley Rep at 7:30 p.m., the program features world premiere works commissioned for this concert by renowned composers Paul Dresher, Daniel David Feinsmith, Amy X Neuberg and John Schott.
Dresher’s work will feature his self-designed instrument the Quadrachord, a hybrid electronic string instrument more than 13 feet long. Other performers include pianist Sarah Cahill, a female vocal sextet singing Neuberg’s music, and Schott leading his own jazz trio, Dream Kitchen.
The festival’s family focus will be celebrated with the return of Community Music Day on March 26 at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.
Hosted by Berkeley’s own Josh Kornbluth, the all-day event features an instrument petting zoo, a children’s concert, a dozen music workshops, concerts all afternoon, and a klezmer/Roma dance party to finish off the celebration.
Shapiro said, “It’s not just about sitting and watching a concert, it’s meant to get people actively engaged in participating and creating.”
Two programs spotlight the Yiddish song tradition. On March 23 at 2 p.m., the Berkeley JCC will present Bayle Schaechter-Gottesman.
The singer, performer, and poet, Shapiro says, “is the reigning Yiddish poet laureate of the US, who won an NEA award as a National Treasure last year.
She creates contemporary poetry and songs in Yiddish with a very original sensibility, and younger performers in the Yiddish song revival all sing her songs. She and her son will also be doing a workshop on Community Music Day on Yiddish children’s folklore.”
Across the bay on March 25 at 8 p.m., the San Francisco Jewish Community Center will host “Three Yiddish Divas,” with singers Joanne Borts, Theresa Tova, and Adrienne Cooper.
All three are fiery and versatile performers who will explore Yiddish jazz, cabaret and theater songs. Listeners will find a link to the golden age of Yiddish song, and discover the artists who influenced the great Broadway songwriters.
The 21st Annual Berkeley Jewish Music Festival includes numerous events in various locations. For more information see www.jewishmusicfestival.org. (415) 276-1511.
Photograph of Roberto Rodriguez.