Kitka, Davka play Jewish music for the masses

Our local public television stations broadcast a plethora of recorded concerts. Unfortunately, the selection is usually a stale rehash of easy listening legends such as Ray Orbison, Placido Domingo and James Taylor.

New music by new artists is so rare on PBS as to be nonexistent, which makes Leonard Merrill Kurz’s achievement that much more impressive.

The veteran San Francisco-based television producer is the force behind “Kitka & Davka in Concert: Old and New World Jewish Music.” The one-hour concert, filmed in July at Temple Sinai in Oakland, is a splendid showcase of the talents of two of the most gifted and invigorating musical acts on the scene. It’s Bay Area premiere will be 10 p.m. Friday, Dec. 22 on KCSM channel 17.

The two ensembles, which have carved out their own careers and followings, first teamed up onstage at the Jewish Music Festival in the East Bay in 2002. Soon after, Kurz embarked on a campaign to stage another collaboration to be recorded for public television.

“Most of the performance specials come from the national providers — ‘Great Performances,’ ‘Soundstage’ — which makes projects such as this, which introduces talent that’s not highly visible like the Boston Pops, very difficult,” Kurz explains.

Kurz found a partner in KEET, the small public television station in Eureka. Together, they produced the program and are lining up broadcast dates on PBS affiliates around the country. Their mantra: You don’t have to be Jewish to like Jewish music.

“What is Jewish music?” Kurz asks rhetorically. “Is it Jewish performers? Certain types of music you perform? It’s open to debate. I’m not going to pretend to answer that for everybody.”

The question is particularly relevant to Kitka, in theory, since several of its members aren’t Jewish. In practice, any viewer who believes there is no more beautiful sound than the human voice in song will be so enthralled that questions simply evaporate.

Kitka has been together for more than a quarter of a century, and most of its songs are traditional, so it’s technically a misnomer to label the group as new artists and its repertoire as new music. For this concert, the eight vocalists (accompanied by a lone percussionist) had the audience in their hands from the opening strains of a dazzling array of Yiddish, Hebrew and Eastern European folk tunes drawn from a range of points on the globe.

Then Davka, an unusual jazz quartet composed of cello, bassoon, violin and percussion, takes the evening in a more abstract and cerebral direction. The concert climaxes with the two groups blending their sounds and approaches on a couple of fresh and exciting numbers that have a distinctly spiritual feel.

Ashley James, an accomplished East Bay documentary filmmaker with several music films to his credit, includes some brief backstage segments with the performers. His unshowy direction is mirrored by Kathryn Golden’s graceful editing, which keeps the performers front and center.

“What music and culture can do is create a connection though time and history,” Kurz asserts. “If musical performance can create a connection to that which transcends time, isn’t that in a way part of what Jewish music is about?”

The Brooklyn-born Kurz got into television right out of college, with a year at KTCA in St. Paul, Minn. He came to Stanford for a summer program in film, and ended up enrolling in the graduate program and picking up a master’s degree. He has succeeded, in the ensuing years, in splitting his career between Northern California and Los Angeles.

Through his company, Forest Creatures Entertainment, and its sister entity, Forest Creatures Foundation, Kurz has dedicated himself to loftier goals than entertainment and profit.

“Culture and music can transcend the boundaries between religions,” Kurz says. “That’s something that we really need for coexistence.”

“Kitka & Davka in Concert: Old and New World Jewish Music” airs at 10 p.m. Friday, Dec. 22 on KCSM.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.