Yiddishbuk uncovers a new world of agony, survival

When violinist Barry Schiffman takes the stage to perform "Yiddishbuk" at the inaugural [email protected] festival Aug. 17, he probably won't experience any opening-night jitters.

Schiffman, along with his colleagues from the St. Lawrence String Quartet, has played the piece hundreds of times since Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov wrote it more than a decade ago.

That doesn't prevent Schiffman from feeling the power of the work every time. Inspired in part by children's poems and drawings from the Holocaust, the three-movement work is an agonizing, yet musically exhilarating, statement about death, survival and the Jewish people.

"It's pretty intense," says Schiffman, a native of Ontario, Canada, who now lives in Palo Alto. "It demands something we weren't used to when we first played it: a sound combination of ecstatic chanted Hebrew prayer combined with demonic screams, of strange worlds coming together."

In fact, as Schiffman recalls, he and his colleagues didn't fully understand the piece when introduced to it at Boston's Tanglewood Festival in 1992. "We were pretty green," he remembers, "and hadn't worked with a lot of living composers. We got the score and tried to make music, but it didn't sound like much."

That's when Golijov, an Argentine Jew then in residence at Tanglewood, began to sing the piece to the befuddled musicians. Suddenly it all made sense.

The St. Lawrence quartet went on to premiere "Yiddishbuk," which has since been performed around the world countless times by many ensembles.

Schiffman & Co. also recorded it, along with other Jewish-themed works by Golijov. The 2002 CD, made possible in part by a grant from the Susan Rose Recording Fund for Contemporary Jewish Music, earned a pair of Grammy nominations and became a top seller by classical music standards.

It's not uncommon for modern composers to latch onto a particular performer or ensemble. But few pairings enjoy the symbiotic bliss of Golijov and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which has collaborated frequently with the composer.

"Ozzie is someone we consider as close as a brother," says Schiffman. "It's more than a musical relationship.

"The most exhilarating kind of work is to realize the innermost feelings and sounds of a composer: to bring to life what's in his incredible head."

For classical musicians like Schiffman, that's a best-case scenario. As he likes to point out, even in this high-tech digital world, the method of musical communication remains five straight lines, a series of dots and dashes, and an Italian word or two. But all that changes when the creator is there to explain things himself.

Says Schiffman: "When you decipher what's on the page with him there, you realize you're uncovering a new world."

The world of "Yiddishbuk" involves a measure of subversion. Into the conventions of chamber music, normally a featherbed of classical order, Golijov hurls this work of agonized emotion. It demands the utmost from string players intellectually, artistically and even physically.

"Yeah, we beat the crap out of our instruments when we play 'Yiddishbuk,'" says Schiffman. "We always walk out with our cheapest bows." That's because they [the bows] don't always survive a tempest-tossed performance.

The challenge for string quartet in performing the piece is the huge degree of sudden contrast, from the barely whispered to the most brutally aggressive, with a quarter-rest in between. Says Schiffman: "How they coexist is difficult, but over time you learn the arc of that work."

Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, the founders of [email protected], know what he means. They are friends with Golijov and members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and they revere Golijov's music. Which is probably why they programmed "Yiddishbuk."

Says Finckel: "Composers are intriguing people. Their job is to push the envelope and develop new language. Ozzie has a fascinating mix of background of South American and Jewish."

Adds Han: "Ozzie is one of the best composers in contemporary music. The piece has never lost its incredible quality of going into heart and stomach. You can feel the cries from the concentration camps."

The festival, currently underway on and around the Menlo School in Atherton, is the first established chamber music festival in the South Bay. In addition to healthy portions of meat-and-potatoes repertoire by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Finckel and Han scheduled a concluding program of challenging contemporary music by non-dead guys.

And though the mention of a musician named Ozzie probably causes most people to think of heavy metal, incoherent tirades and dog poop on the kitchen floor, Golijov's "Yiddishbuk" might change all that.

Says Schiffman: "We're convinced it is as important and as great as any piece of music we've ever encountered."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.