GREAT SONGS OF THE YIDDISH STAGE, VOL. 1 (Amy Goldstein/ Barcelona Symphony-National Orchestra of Catalonia/ Benzion Miller/ Bruce Adler/ Elizabeth Shammash/ Elli Jaffe/ Joanne Borts/ Nell Snaidas/ Robert Abelson/ Robert Bloch/ Simon Spiro/ Simon Weir/ V
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Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage, Vol. 1: Abraham Ellstein (1907-1963) and Other Songwriters of His Circle
The American Yiddish musical stage, one of the most powerful expressions of the immigrant experience, flourished as mass entertainment among large numbers of eastern European Jewish newcomers to this country from the 1890s through the 1940s. This Milken Archive disc, the first of three projected volumes, includes 16 examples of popular Yiddish theatrical song, derived primarily from the Yiddish theater that was centered on lower Manhattan's Second Avenue, but also from Yiddish vaudeville, film, and radio.
Many of the Yiddish theater songs come from full-length productions that alternated romantic comedy with melodrama, vaudeville routines with social comment. Many express the various romantic situations found in those plays: unrequited love, marriages of convenience, and arrangements between unlikely couples. Others were "songs of disillusionment" that lamented the difficulties of the new immigrants in America; and many expressed nostalgia for the "old country," a sentiment more idealized than real, as most Jews had been eager to escape their poverty in Europe and were committed to their adopted new land.
The goal of the Milken Archive Yiddish theater project was to re-create the authentic sound and style of this vibrant genre. The greatest challenge was that complete or authoritative orchestrations for Yiddish theater songs have not survived. Conductors of the time worked mostly from sketches, and actual arrangements were usually done after the fact for live radio or makeshift recordings. These arrangements almost always called for smaller ensembles than the actual 25-piece pit orchestras in the theaters. The Milken Archive commissioned several leading orchestrators to produce new, historically informed arrangements expressly for these multi-track recordings, based on meticulous research into ensemble size, instrumentation, and the orchestral styles of the original productions.
The musical style of these songs is a unique amalgam of idioms and influences both secular and religious: Viennese operetta (one of the important sources of the Yiddish theater); Eastern European Jewish, Gypsy, and other folk motifs; and cantorial traditions and liturgical modes. Composers and arrangers also incorporated popular dance rhythms and melodic styles of the day, reflecting their adopted culture. Many leading personalities of the Yiddish stage were considered virtual folk heroes, and some achieved fame in the broader world of American popular culture as well. Eventually, "swing" versions of some Yiddish show tunes became the rage in this country, and American Yiddish theater was successfully exported to Europe and South America.
Ten of the sixteen songs on this disc are by Abraham Ellstein (1907-1963), an American-born composer and arranger who, although best known for his Yiddish theater songs, was Juilliard-trained and also wrote oratorios, synagogue music, and two operas. Several of the concert and opera singers, and musical theater artists heard performing these works can trace their roots to important figures in the history of Yiddish theater. They were coached in authentic Yiddish theater style by Zalman Mlotek. Elli Jaffe conducts the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the Barcelona Symphony / National Orchestra of Catalonia, with sopranos Amy Goldstein and Nell Snaidas; mezzo-sopranos Joanne Borts and Elizabeth Shammash; tenors Bruce Adler, Robert Bloch, Benzion Miller, and Simon Spiro; and baritone Robert Abelson.
(Excerpted and adapted from the essay by Neil W. Levin in the CD liner notes booklet.)