In 1930s Berlin, bookstore owner Hirsch Lewin started his Semer record label in response to a ban on Jewish musicians performing in Nazi Germany. But when synagogues and businesses were destroyed during Kristallnacht, so were the label’s arrangements and records. That is, until the ’90s when musicologist Rainer Lots spent nearly a decade tracking down more than 250 recordings from the catalog. Led by Alan Bern, the Semer Project brings those cabaret hits, Italian arias and German folk and klezmer songs to life, and the Jewish Arts Collaborative brings the ensemble of contemporary Jewish musicians to Tufts University’s Granoff Music Center on Nov. 14.
What was the music scene like when Hirsch Lewin founded his record label? Well, if you’ve ever seen a film about Berlin in the 1920s, you know that everything in the world was happening here. There was high art; there was cabaret; many of the world’s most major composers were living here at that point. There was a very vital opera scene; there were several orchestras; there were musical theaters. There was a very vital Yiddish culture scene here. So there was everything under the sun that you can imagine. And it was partly because it was so colorful that the Nazis shut down the parts of what they thought were degenerate. If we look at the moment when Lewin starts making these recordings, in 1932 before Hitler came to power and until 1938 when Kristallnacht happens, what we’re seeing is the echo of this colorful scene from the 1920s that really had probably no precedent in Western Europe.
How incredible is the nearly 10-year search that musicologist Rainer Lots went on to find the surviving recordings? Amazing. Amazing. And especially when you think of the fact that one record in those days weighed a few pounds. They were made of shellac; they’re extremely fragile. And the thought that people took those records with them when they were fleeing Nazi Germany is just in itself incredible, and that any of those records survived any of that journey.
Can you describe one song you’ll perform that resonates with you? One of them is called “Vorbei,” which means it’s over. It was sung by a young actress named Dora Gerson. It’s the ending of a love relationship song. You know, it’s “I thought it would last forever and then all of a sudden you say goodbye to me and how is it possible that it’s over.” But of course, knowing that she sings this song in the 1930s and that a few years later she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz with her family and killed there gives the whole song a poignancy and historical weight that your normal love song doesn’t have.
There’s a lot of layers to this: musicians creating their music, Lewin starting his label, Lots tracking down the recordings, and now you interpreting it all for a modern-day audience. How did it all come about? I feel very lucky that this project kind of fell in my lap. One of the singers in the ensemble, Fabian Schnedler, works at the Jewish Museum and he’s been a student of mine. So when the Jewish Museum decided that they wanted to do an exhibition about this period of time—the late ’20s and early ’30s—they ran across these recordings and Fabian said to them: “Look, you can have these recordings sitting in a dark room with little MP3 recordings of it that people can listen to when they put on headphones. Or you can have somebody create a live program with musicians who are living today in Berlin, and audiences can hear and feel what this music would have sounded like 70 years ago when young people were doing it.” In fact, the director of the Jewish Museum was sitting in the audience and after the concert she came up and said, “I agreed to put on this concert because I thought I should, you know, morally, or something like that, but I didn’t think I was going to like the music. But I loved so much what you did, and it feels to me like you are all playing this music because you really love it and you live it.” And that was the greatest thing to hear because we don’t want this to be a museum piece. We want audiences to hear us and to understand that this is real music made by real people and not to think of it as from that time and place only, but to also see it as relating to the present as well.
You’ve studied and have an interest in pop, jazz and classical. What draws you to Yiddish music? We tend to look back at Yiddish culture and think of it in terms of nostalgia, but it was a booming, very edgy culture in the beginning of the 20th century with connections to very deep folk traditions as well. And I would say that the edginess of Yiddish culture, as well as the deeper levels of Yiddish culture, all sort of got sugarcoated in a kind of a nostalgic picture of what it was. And that was an injustice to the millions and millions of people who lived that culture. I also think that Yiddish culture is not unique in this, but it was not only the six million Jews and dozens of other millions of people who were lost because of the war, but it was all of the social and cultural impulses that were coming from them and that would have continued if they had been able to continue to live.
57 orchestra members will take the Boch Wang Theatre stage alongside a 20-person choir on Oct. 21 for The Legend of Zelda—Symphony of the Goddesses. The two-hour concert—which includes a video collage that plays out a few of the game’s scenes—recreates Nintendo composer Koji Kondo’s original music, from the soundtrack of Link settling on his colored tunic to slaying dragons and racing through the forest.
THE IMPROPER’S 2017 FALL ARTS PREVIEW: DANCE | BOOKS | COMEDY | MUSIC | PERFORMING ARTS | VISUAL ART