(From left) Asaf Ophir, Noa Levy and Achi Ben Shalom will perform together as Trio Gesher on Sept. 7 at Sonoma State University.
(From left) Asaf Ophir, Noa Levy and Achi Ben Shalom will perform together as Trio Gesher on Sept. 7 at Sonoma State University.

From a klezmer trio to a Yiddish cowboy, Sonoma State’s Jewish music series showcases variety

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The ninth annual Jewish Music Series at Sonoma State University kicks off Sept. 7, with the Israeli-born musicians of Trio Gesher performing music of the diaspora in the first of six concerts, all free and open to the public.

The lineup also includes a klezmer trio, a mandolin ensemble, an Israeli-born jazz pianist and a Yiddish-singing cowboy. The final concert on Nov. 16 will be a “Bloch Party,” featuring Sonoma State students and faculty playing 20th-century composer Ernest Bloch’s “Second Concerto Grosso” as well as his “Prayer from Jewish Life” and “Hebraic Suite.”

“The whole concept is variety,” Sonoma State music professor Brian Wilson said of the series, which he has organized since its inception and is part of a class he teaches on Jewish music. “When the public comes in, they’re coming in to join our class.”

All of the concerts, which are co-presented by the Jewish Studies program and department of music at Sonoma State, will be held at the Green Music Center on the university’s Rohnert Park campus.

The Bay Area–based Trio Gesher will open the series with “a survey of Jewish music from around the world and its influence on Israeli music,” said singer-guitarist Achi Ben Shalom. While Ben Shalom also directs the Nigunim Community Chorus and other local ensembles, he said this program will not include niggunim (wordless melodies) or klezmer.

Rather, the trio of Israeli-born musicians — Ben Shalom and Noa Levy on vocals and Asaf Ophir on clarinet — will perform such favorites as Yiddish theater star Molly Picon’s signature song, “Abi Gezunt” (“So Long As You’re Healthy”), and the lullaby “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”); the Ladino wedding song “Morenika” (“Little Dark Beauty”); and “El Nora Alila” (“God of Awesome Deeds”), an up-tempo Persian-Israeli rendition of the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy.

The second concert on Sept. 21 is a double bill of Sonoma County performers: Jewish cowboy Scott Gerber, who sings of the shtetl as well as the range, and the 14-piece Gravenstein Mandolin Ensemble. Both Gerber, the grandson of secular socialists who fled to Petaluma to raise chickens, and mandolin ensemble leader Gus Garelick were raised on music that grew out of the Jewish left-wing immigrant experience. A trained violinist, Garelick learned mandolin from his grandfather as well as an aunt who played at Workmen’s Circle during the Depression.

Mandolin ensembles, he wrote in an email, are “an essential part of the immigrant experience in America, not only for Jews but also for Italians, Russians, Germans, Greeks and more.”

Crossing the borders of folk, jazz and classical, the East Coast band Big Galut(e) will perform Sept. 28. The band’s name alludes to both the Hebrew word galut, which means an exile living outside the Land of Israel or away from the Jewish community, and the U.S. slang “big galoot,” a semi-endearing term for one who is foolish or awkward.

A New York radio reviewer called the group “an alleged klezmer band” because its style cannot be easily pigeon-holed. (For a taste, check out “Levant,” featuring clarinetist Robin Seletsky. She will perform a klezmer concerto in a separate wind ensemble concert on Sept. 27 at Sonoma State that costs $12.)

Meanwhile, those looking forward to traditional Old Country klezmer will not be disappointed. On Oct. 19, the popular Bay Area–based Veretski Pass, which Wilson calls “our house band,” takes to the stage.

Noting that the Sonoma State series is gaining a higher profile in the music world, Wilson said Alon Nechushtan, an Israeli-born jazz pianist, “actually reached out to me” about participating. Nechushtan’s original music blends Middle Eastern, North African and Ashkenazi and Sephardic influences. In addition to performing on Nov. 2, the pianist will give a master class for Sonoma State jazz students.

Each time Wilson produces the series, he explores the question, What is Jewish music? The answers keep evolving, he said, which is why he’s always able to come up with fresh material.

Jewish Music Series at Sonoma State

Six Thursdays from Sept. 7 to Nov. 16 at Schroeder Hall, Green Music Center, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. 5:30 p.m. Free, no tickets needed. Parking is $5.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].