Just what is a Radical Jewish Music Festival? One being held at six different venues throughout the University of Pennsylvania and West Philadelphia neighborhoods, no less.
"Radical" ... "Jewish." My interest and curiosity were stimulated by these words, enough so that I attended the fifth program of the March festival, featuring singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, together with pianist Anat Fort and clarinetist Michael Winograd.
It was indeed both radical and Jewish.
Only 30 people gathered in the community room of Calvary Centennial Church in West Philly, a beautiful old house of worship with terrific acoustics. A large concert grand piano was located under the dome of this two-story circular space, and the small group of concert attendees all sat close to the performers.
Gottlieb, raised in Jerusalem, came to the United States as a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and now lives in Brooklyn. Fort, born near Tel Aviv, spends most of her time playing jazz piano in New York, and American-born Michael Winograd, clarinetist, performs with many klezmer groups.
The three musicians entered the performance space together, and Gottlieb immediately riveted the attention of the audience with her improvised and nonrhythmic singing on such syllables as "du-du-de-de ... " After two minutes of solo and free chant sung with incredible beauty and perfect intonation, the clarinet entered the mix with a low, sustained tone, followed soon after by clusters of notes on the piano played with virtuoso technique.
The "radical" question was thus answered with clarity, and soon the "Jewish" elements of this mélange of sounds began to be revealed by these unusual musicians.
For the next hour or so, Gottlieb, Fort and Winograd exchanged musical fragments and ideas in an intensely improvisational style. Almost all the performed works were composed by Gottlieb, and soon the "Jewish" sources of her very individualistic music became more apparent.
"I grew up in a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem, and I remember the sounds of the men praying and chanting in the synagogues all around our apartment," she explained after the concert.
She also attended a Masorti elementary school, receiving the equivalent of a Conservative Jewish day-school education.
This reservoir of Jewish experiences and sounds in Gottlieb's formative years undoubtedly provided sources for her improvisational chants and original compositions. The trio effectively used a 7/8 rhythm in one composition that had a discernible groove. The finale was taken from Gottlieb's album, "Mayim Rabim/ Abundant Water."
Fort's piano technique is prodigious; she undoubtedly had significant classical training before turning to jazz piano. After the performance, I checked out the sheets on the piano music stand, and the sheer amount of notes that she derived from very minimal notations on her scores was astonishing.
Winograd, not revealing much of his klezmer roots in his improvisations of Gottlieb's musical ideas, played with a big and beautiful tone throughout all the octaves of his clarinet.
Concert-goers' musical vocabulary was certainly expanded by this unusual concert that was truly radical ... and Jewish.