What Is Jewish Music? An Interview With Michael Guttman
small, Michal Guttman, Martha Argerich i Jing Zhao, fot. POLIN / Magda Starowieyska, 28070517_10156158215311419_60188424242140059_o.jpg
Michael Guttman, a violin virtuoso and the curator of the POLIN Music Festival talks about Jewish music, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Eastern European roots of the tango.
Michael Guttman is a violinist and a conductor. He holds the position of a director of several festivals and he is additionally the music director of the Napa Valley Symphony and the Belgian Chamber Orchestra. He promotes Jewish and especially Israeli music. Recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, his album including the rendition of three string concertos corresponding to three generations of Israeli composers (Ben Haim, Sheriff and Zehavi) received critical acclaim and he was awarded the prestigious Scopus Prize (2014) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his achievements in music. He was also nominated for a Grammy award for his Hindemith.
Filip Lech: You travel all around the world with your music. Surely, you must have visited many Jewish museums and cultural centres. What makes the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw stand out?
Michael Guttman: Its beautiful architecture and open spaces. It makes the ambience serene and positive. Even though some of the stories told at the exhibition are atrocious, I didn’t leave depressed, just pensive. Even its name is different – it is not the Jewish Museum in Warsaw. It’s the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a perfect reflection of the centuries-long relationship between Jews and Poles.
FL: How did you get involved in the musical life of POLIN?
MG: Corinne Evans, my friend, who is a member of the European Association for Museums, repeatedly told me that I have to get involved, but I didn’t know how. When I visited the museum for the first time, I noticed that the concert hall lacked a piano. Of course, you can do without a piano, but a real concert hall needs one. I decided to help by providing the Museum with a piano. I succeeded – Martha Argerich [Argentine classical pianist, widely regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all time – editor’s note] could play a beautiful concert Steinway.
When I came for the concert inaugurating the piano, I met Kajetan Prochyra, the co-ordinator for music projects at POLIN, and we became friends right away. I told him that it would be great to play pieces composed by Israeli artists alongside the works of Polish-Jewish musicians. That could bring us closer to the true meaning of Jewish music.
FL: Can you define Jewish music?
MG: It will always remain a question rather than an answer. Does a non-Jewish composer who addresses Jewish matters create Jewish music? Does a Jew who does not bring up Jewish culture create Jewish music? Is all music created in Israel Jewish music? If we juxtapose those questions, we can construct a very interesting musical programme aimed at finding a common denominator. I think that Jewish music always has some sorrow and joy in it, as well as dance themes. Music is a part of our tradition: when you enter a synagogue, you can almost feel the music, singing is very important. Trying to answer the question of what is Jewish music is like finding an answer to other questions: What is Jewish identity? Nation? Religion? Who are the Jews?
FL: What is your personal history of Jewish music?
MG: It must’ve started with my bar mitzvah. The cantor who was supposed to sing fell ill, so he couldn’t grace the grand ceremony with his full voice, and I had to support him. As for my later experiences, I promoted and played the music of the artists deported to Theresienstadt – Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann. The degenerate music forbidden by the Third Reich, Entartete Musik. Those gifted composers died in concentration camps; we should try to make their art live for as long as possible. We are called the People of the Scripture, not the People of the Sheet Music, but we are still obliged to protect it. If the sheet music survived, we have to revive it.
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Kroke, a popular band that follows the Jewish music tradition, photo: Jacek Dyląg
FL: Jewish music is stereotypically seen as folk music. Have you ever studied klezmer violin music?
MG: Not yet, maybe one day I will? It is one of my dreams. My friend once told me that I would have to dedicate seven years to master jazz violin. I think that learning klezmer style would take me three years but who knows? I’ll have to try.
FL: You are interested in Jewish tango.
MG: Tango is a multi-cultural style. Argentinian music amalgamated with German bandoneon, Italian singing, Spanish guitar, Afro-Iberian rhythm and Jewish violin. Jewish violin, that is the instrument that was brought along before World War II from Eastern Europe by Russian and Polish Jewish emigres – with what is called schmaltz in Yiddish, a lot of glissandos and vibratos. One of Astor Piazzolla’s most important violinists was Szymsia Bajour born in Poland.
In the repertoire of the quartet in which I play tango (Michael Guttman, Alexander Gurning, Lysandre Donoso, Ariel Eberstein), we also have a Polish tango – To Ostatnia Niedziela (editor’s translation: The Last Sunday).
Polin museum of the history of Polish Jews
FL: It was written by a Jewish-Polish composer, Jerzy Petersburski. Adam Aston, one of the most popular Polish singers of the Interwar period, also sang it in Hebrew.
How did you meet Martha Argerich?
MG: She lives in Brussels, just like me. She invited me to take part in her festival in Lugano – she is interested in tango as well – and I invited her to my festival in Pietrasanta. We played together with Néstor Marconi and we were on tour together. We have a similar approach to playing tango, and we quickly became friends.
FL: How did her taking part in the POLIN music festival come about?
MG: I think Martha was intrigued by the concept of the festival, but she also wanted to visit the museum. She is a very interesting person, she likes to learn new things, experience situations she has never experienced before. How many times can one person perform in big concert halls?
She went to POLIN with her friends and family: Annie Dutoit, her daughter, Akane Sakai, a pianist and Jing Zhao, a cellist (and Michael Guttman – editor’s note). Together with Sakai, she performed Witold Lutosławski’s Variations On A Theme Of Paganini for two pianos composed in occupied Warsaw. Sakai and Zhao performed Szymon Laks’ Sonata For Piano And Cello composed by an Auschwitz prisoner whose works were interpreted by Annie Dutoit. Is there a better place to perform Laks than POLIN?
Almost nobody believed me that Martha would come. She’d have the right not to – she is a free woman. Luckily, everything turned out just perfect.
FL: How are you feeling after the festival?
MG: I’m quite tired, but I hope that we created something special, which will survive in the memories of many people. I hope we will be able to recreate it. Kajetan and I, we have many ideas. Many questions to ask and a lot of music to present.
Originally written in Polish, translated by AP, May 2018