Tradition and Superstition Take the Stage at Pittsburgh’s Jewish Music Festival

Music is very much alive.  Sadly, the unfortunate young Yeshiva student, Hannan, does not enjoy such a luxury, as he meets his untimely death in Ofer Ben-Amots’ chamber opera “The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds,” presented this weekend by the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival and directed by the festival’s founder, cellist Aron Zelkowicz.  One of the things that is so exciting about new art and music, is the limitless potential it holds to reveal to its audience something new, while grounding it in the familiar.  In the case of Mr. Ben-Amots’ piece, billed as a multimedia chamber opera, the topic of the dybbuk (a malicious spirit that possesses the living) comes to modern times out of old Yiddish and Russian-Jewish folklore.  Over the past hundred years, beginning with a stage play penned by the Russian folklorist Shloyme Rappoport (as S. Ansky), this story has been transformed again and again across a variety of media including a film by renowned Polish director Michał Waszyński and a 1974 ballet by Leonard Bernstein, choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

Upon entering the performance space—Pittsburgh’s New Hazlett Theater—concert-goers were immediately confronted by a simple pine coffin, flanked in the distance by large rear-projection screens and clusters of music stands and percussion equipment.  A lone clarinet, perched on a catwalk above, hearkened the start of the action as macabre projections of tombstones and spooky, dark trees compiled by video artist Sheri Wills, flickered across the screens. The clarinet appeared as a pivotal element in the presentation, virtuosic passages from Mr. Ben-Amots’ score representing a character in the play, somewhat reminiscent of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, produced by the Pittsburgh Opera in 2010.  Clarinetist Gilad Harel seemed a hero of the ensemble, performing complex and rapid musical gestures while moving about and, at one critical moment, lying down on top of the coffin before surrendering his instrument (his soul, the dybbuk) to a young girl who held it above him.  Dancers from Pittsburgh’s Texture Contemporary Ballet surged across the stage under black-light and dressed in grotesque costumes.

In Mr. Zelkowicz’s directorial debut, this ambitious host of chosen elements seemed at times to lack real cohesion as it drifted from focused moments of clear intention to rather ambiguous abstractions.  Mr. Ben-Amots’ score was immediately approachable and somewhat homogenous, successfully channeling the aesthetic of the Yiddish source material.  That said, I would have liked to hear a bit more of a contemporary re-contextualization or re-imagining of what it could be that makes the music Jewish, per se, rather than hearing such familiar sounds.

On a technical note, I questioned throughout the use of a microphone attached to soprano Yahli Toren, whose commanding presence and impressive instrument easily filled the intimate setting, and served only to be distorted by the in-house PA system.

Over all, I must commend the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival for championing such an ambitious project, and bringing together such a diverse host of forces at the intersection of tradition, spirituality and artistic expression.  This work made for an interesting evening, rife with unexpected moments and an extraordinarily strong cast of fine musicians and performers.  I look forward to seeing the next iteration of this upward trajectory in future seasons and hope the Festival will continue to explore beyond the boundaries of traditional expectations.