“Sirota” was commissioned by Inna Faliks and the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. “Alter(ed) Zhok” and “Fraydele” were commissioned by the Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dedicated to Inna Faliks & the memory of Fraydele Oysher and Gershon Sirota.
When Inna Faliks commissioned “Sirota”, my first thought was “I want to find a way to get Inna back to Ukraine, musically”. I’m not sure why – I knew that Inna was born in Odessa, the place where my great-grandparents were summarily executed in 1941 – but I had no specific reason, other than curiosity, that led me to recorded collections by celebrated Cantors of the Golden Age, and in turn to the voice of Gershon Sirota.
SIROTA (the title means “Orphan” in Russian, which could be coincidental) is a composition for solo piano that incorporates a recording made by cantor Gershon Sirota and choir in Warsaw in 1908. Often referred to as “The Jewish Caruso”, Gershon Sirota was born in Ukraine and served as cantor in Odessa, Vilnius, and then Warsaw, where he perished in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The first part of the composition acts as a prelude and features fragments of the recorded melody, accompanied by a relentless limping pattern comprised of a falling and rising D-minor arpeggio. After the climax, the pianist’s role becomes that of an accompanist at a synagogue, where Sirota is chanting prayers for Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year).
I do not remember how the idea of using the actual recording in performance developed — what began as a search for inspiration in old recordings became a way of seeing these historical documents in a new light.
ALTER(ED) ZHOK (“Alter” means “old”, “Zhok” is a type of folk dance) takes its inspiration from a recording collected by Joel Engel in Skvira, Ukraine, in 1912. I fell in love with the beautiful, coy melody, and its slightly obscured rhythmic form. It makes for a wonderful contrast and joyful entr’acte between the voices of Gershon Sirota and Fraydele Oysher.
In an attempt to balance out a set of three pieces to complete “Voices”, I wanted to find recordings of Jewish cantorial music by women. When I came across this recording of the celebrated Yiddish actress and singer FRAYDELE Oysher from 1953, I could not get it out of my mind – the voice, so beautifully flowing, the seamlessly shifting tonalities — I would listen to it over and over. The text of the prayer, “Ov-Harachamim”, written around the 12th century, commemorates the destruction of the Ashkenazi communities around the Rhine River by Christian crusaders during the First Crusade. The text of this prayer could also be a fitting memorial for the unforgettable voices of Cantor Sirota, the anonymous clarinettist of Alter(ed) Zhok, and Fraydele Oysher.
Three Jewish Composers- Three Centuries
“Three Jewish Composers- Three Centuries,” a program pianist Inna Faliks has presented twice at Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, has featured the North American premiere of Ilya Levinson’s Shtetle Suite and, most recently, the world premiere of “Sirota” for piano and recorded sound, written for Inna Faliks by one of New York’s most popular composers, Ljova Zhurbin.
Past programs have included the following pairings:
>> 19th century composer Fanny Mendelssohn, 20th century master George Gershwin, and acclaimed contemporary composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin.
>> Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ilya Levinson (Shtetle Suite).