Jewish Performers and Composers. (Arts and Letters)

By Jochnowitz, George | Midstream, February-March 2003 | Go to article overview

Jewish Performers and Composers. (Arts and Letters)


Jochnowitz, George, Midstream


Is there a Jewish instrument? It would have to be the shofar, sounded during the month of Elul, during Rosh Hashanah services, and at the end of Yom Kippur. Is there a modern instrument that is a descendant of the shofar? The trumpet comes to mind, or perhaps the trombone, or the tuba. Are Jews famous for playing brasses? Not particularly, although when we consider the world of klezmer music, we do have trumpeter Frank London and several other notable names. When we get to woodwinds, the clarinet seems to be a leading candidate, both in classical and in klezmer music, although the clarinet is a relatively recent instrument, attributed to Johann Christopher Denner and invented in Nuremberg in about 1690. (1) The most famous clarinetist, noted for both swing and classical music, is probably Benny Goodman. (Trumpeter Ziggy Elman, in Goodman's swing band, added a virtuosic touch of klezmer to the ensemble.) The legendary klezmer clarinetist of an earlier generation, Dave Tarras, spawned a generation of admirers and virtual students. Andy Statman's name comes to mind as one of the most brilliant of contemporary klezmer clarinetists, and a mandolin virtuoso to boot.

The voice is a universal instrument, and there certainly is a noble tradition among Jews of cantorial singing. In the 20th century, there were quite a few Jewish opera stars at the Metropolitan Opera, Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters, and Beverly Sills among them. Tenors Tucker and Peerce also had careers as cantors. (2)

But it is among violinists that Jews are particularly numerous: Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Isaac Stern, Yitzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Maxim Vengerov--to name only a few. Erica Morini, perhaps the most famous woman violinist of the first half of the 20th century, was Jewish. My father saw her perform in Cracow when he was a young man. I saw her perform at Carnegie Hall when I was a young man. For most of the 20th century, Jews seemed to dominate the ranks of top violinists. My wife has told me about a riddle she heard some decades ago: What is the world's shortest book? Answer: "The Book of Non-Jewish Violinists."

Times have changed. In recent years, Asians have joined the ranks of distinguished violinists: Cho-Liang Lin, born in Taiwan and an American citizen; Sarah Chang, born in Philadelphia to Korean parents; Midori, born in Japan but now a resident of New York City. There is no longer a clear Jewish majority of renowned violinists, but Yitzhak Perlman seems to be the most respected and loved violinist performing today.

Why should Jews be especially prominent among violinists? There is no clear answer. Perhaps string instruments are most capable of changes in tone, most like the voice. Perhaps violins reflect emotion, especially grief, more easily. We should remember, however, that those who play and love different instruments will argue that their own favorite instrument can convey the greatest range of emotion. Are violins popular among a wandering people because they are portable? Probably not. Most wind instruments are equally portable.

Even more numerous among Jews than famous violinists are famous pianists: Artur Schnabel, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Wanda Landowska (a harpsichordist but also a pianist), Rudolf Serkin, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Evgeny Kissin--again, I have named only a few. Despite their numbers, Jewish pianists seem to be a proportionately smaller group than Jewish violinists. The world recognizes the names of more pianists than of violinists. As is the case with violinists, in recent years Asian pianists have become famous as well: Helen Huang, born in Japan to Chinese parents; Lang Lang, born in Shenyang, China.

What about composers? Jews are less prominent in this field. When I was growing up, Felix Mendelssohn was always considered the most important Jewish composer. …

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