Multimedia musical traces Sarajevo Haggadahs odyssey

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Growing up in Bosnia, Merima Kljuco was familiar with the Sarajevo Haggadah.

The medieval illuminated manuscript was considered a treasure of the Bosnian National Museum for more than a century. Its 600-year journey from Spain through Italy and then Sarajevo, and its survival through persecution and near destruction at the hands of enemies of the Jews, heightened its wonderment.

Illustration from the Sarajevo Haggadah photo/wikimedia commons

But four years ago, a friend gave Kljuco a copy of “People of the Book” — the acclaimed 2008 historical novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah by Geraldine Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who reported on the Bosnian war for the Wall Street Journal.

Kljuco’s interest in the haggadah was transformed from fascination to creative passion.

“I became obsessed with the idea of a project that would musically and visually follow the haggadah’s journey from Spain to Sarajevo,” Kljuco said.

The haggadah’s odyssey also reminded Kljuco of her own life and “exodus,” she said, having been forced to leave her country “under the strangest and heaviest circumstances.”

Now Kljuco, 39, a Los Angeles resident and internationally known concert accordionist, has composed a piece of music that gives voice to the Sarajevo Haggadah’s trek.

“The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” is a multimedia presentation, an artistic collaboration of Kljuco, pianist Seth Knopp and Bart Woodstrup, an artist who created a visual animation that accompanies the concert.

The composition, commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network had its world premiere to sold-out audiences at the end of March. The first performance was at Yellow Barn, a prominent center for chamber music in Putney, Vt., where Kljuco developed the piece in an earlier residency, and then at the Boston Jewish Music Festival in partnership with New Center for the Arts.

The composition will be performed in San Francisco on Thursday, May 22 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The concert is part of the museum’s new artist residencies, and is presented in partnership with the JCC of San Francisco.

“The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” reflects the foundation’s vision to support cultural works that are accessible to audiences of all backgrounds, said Andrew Ingall, former director of the New Jewish Culture Network (the foundation closed earlier this year due to funding problems).

“The music is contemporary but also reflects Sephardic music traditions,” Ingall said. “It communicates the wonders, traumas and geographic journeys of this remarkable codex.”

The mesmerizing one-hour piece is divided into 12 movements that trace the haggadah’s history, from playful Sephardic melodies and dances to nearly silent, prayer-like tones and then harsh, brutal rhythms that erupt from Knopf’s piano.

Merima Kljuco photo/jose de vries

During an emotional passage on the siege of Sarajevo, which took place from April 1992 to February 1996, Kljuco’s accordion nearly weeps. Woodstrup’s visual images, which include illustrations from the haggadah, are projected onto a long white sheet.

The Sarajevo Haggadah stands out among others of its time in several ways, according to Aleksandra Buncic, an art historian and scholar born and raised in Sarajevo.

Produced in the Crown of Aragon between 1330 and 1350, the haggadah features the most complete illuminated cycle of biblical events from the Book of Genesis as well as Exodus, said Buncic, a Fulbright scholar at Rutgers University. It also illuminates all seven days of the creation of the world, which is not found in any other example of Jewish art through the Middle Ages, she added.

The haggadah was presumed to have been smuggled out of Spain and so survived the 1492 expulsion of Jews, and later, in Venice, was spared the fate of being burned by the pope’s inquisitor.

At the end of the 19th century, the haggadah, which found its way to Sarajevo, was sold to the Bosnian National Museum by its Jewish owners. Twice during the 20th century it was saved by Muslims there at great risk to their lives — once by Dervis Korkut from the hands of the Nazis, and in the mid-1990s by Enver Imamovic during the deadly years of the siege of Sarajevo.

Kljuco grew up in the former Yugoslavia but left her home in 1993 during the Bosnian War. She spent time in refugee camps, a painful memory to this day, she said.

“The haggadah … suffered transformations which make it even more special by giving it a richer history that reflects its passage through different cultures,” she said. “I also travel around the world and with every journey I get a new ‘scar,’ positive or negative. But I keep my dignity and get richer by traveling through different circumstances and sharing culture with others through my music.”

In the former Yugoslavia, Kljuco was exposed to an array of musical styles. She began playing accordion at an early age, “falling in love at first sound,” she said.

Hailed for her virtuosity, Kljuco performs around the world with symphony and chamber orchestras. She has become steeped in Sephardic and Yiddish music through her many collaborations with Shura Lipovsky, an international performer of Yiddish song, the Jewish folk balladeer Theodore Bikel, and the late pianist and composer Tamara Brooks, to whom she dedicated her composition.

“They all became my musical family,” she said.

Merima Kljuco presents “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 22, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $20 (includes museum admission) or (415) 655-7800


‘Music of the Book’ warm-up events

Merima Kljuco will play a musical sampling from “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” and discuss her work at two free events on Wednesday, May 21 in San Francisco.

She will focus on the creation and inspiration for the piece in her 1 p.m. talk at the JCC of  San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F.

At 7 p.m., Kljuco and local musician Jewlia Eisenberg (of the band Charming Hostess) will discuss their multidisciplined approach to compositions in a moderated conversation with Gravity Goldberg of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The event takes place at Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative, 3130 24th St., S.F.

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