A musical Song of Songs springs to life in premiere

Perhaps it's because spring is around the bend. Or maybe it has to do with a yearning for refuge from horrific world events. It could be the basic appeal of the erotic work itself.

Whatever the reason, the Song of Songs is a hot number these days with several upcoming performances and events in the Bay Area focusing on this most passionate of poems from the Bible.

Detailing the sexual awakening of two young lovers, "it's a book that's been beloved for over 2,000 years," explains Chana Bloch, a Mills College professor and co-author of an acclaimed 1995 translation of the text. Given the current turmoil around the globe, "it's a way for our community to come together and enjoy something that's unequivocally positive [dealing with] love, youth and celebration. We all need a dose of that at the moment."

And a dose we'll get.

On Sunday, March 10, Bloch will be among a panel of scholars, cantors and performers at a symposium on the U.C. Berkeley campus offering multidisciplinary interpretations of the poem.

Six days later, U.C. Berkeley will be the site of the premiere of a new musical adaptation of the text by Jorge Liderman, a composer and Berkeley music professor.

Those two events are running in conjunction with the 17th annual Jewish Music Festival, presented by the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

The celebration of the Song of Songs will continue on April 11, when A Traveling Jewish Theatre presents "Come, My Beloved," its dramatic rendering of Bloch's translation. The production, which uses "masks, music and movement," runs through May 19 in San Francisco.

Also currently in the works is a Lehrhaus Judaica seminar that continues to March 21 in which biblical scholar Ken Cohen examines the changing interpretations of the work. Finally, Bloch will read poems and translations on April 4 at U.C. Berkeley's Doe Library.

Because of all the attention to one single poem, organizers decided to assemble experts and performers for the comprehensive, kick-off event on March 10. "It seemed like a good time to have a symposium," explained Bloch. The afternoon will include a talk and dramatic presentation by ATJT directors and actors, performances by Cantors Roslyn Barak and Richard Kaplan, and discussions by Liderman and other professors familiar with the poem.

Liderman's score is just the latest musical interpretation of a work that probably was set to music even before it was written down. According to Bloch, scholars think its lyrics were played at weddings and other special events in ancient times.

Composers, including Henry Purcell and Igor Stravinsky, have written music based on the Song, and Liderman himself composed a piece called "Shir Ha-Shirim" in 1985 using a Hebrew translation of the text.

Four years ago, Liderman was approached by Bloch about the idea of again setting the work to music but this time using her English translation.

After reading Bloch's version, "I was immediately attracted to a contemporary interpretation and the edge of the translation," said the 44-year-old Liderman, who grew up in Argentina and studied for five years in Jerusalem.

In particular, he said he was drawn by "the freshness of sort of a first love or first sexual encounter."

His resulting composition is a three-movement cantata for soloists, chorus and a full chamber orchestra. Soprano Elissa Johnston will have the role of the female lover, known as the Shulamite, while tenor Charles Blandy will sing the part of the male lover. Also performing are the U.C. Berkeley Chamber Chorus and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.

"The piece has a big sound, pretty much from beginning to end," says Liderman, noting that the work employs 30 vocalists and a 15-piece orchestra. "The music is very pulsating and rhythmic."