Opening concert of the Days of Jewish Culture Festival in Berlin.
(photo credit: MAYA SHWAYDER)
BERLIN – The 27th annual Days of Jewish Culture Festival began last Thursday evening in Berlin with a lovely concert titled “Jochen Kowalski Sings Max Kowalski” at the Synagogue Rykestraße, featuring the work of the relatively unknown Jewish composer, Max Kowalski.
An energetic and engaging performer with no relation to his namesake composer, counter-tenor Jochen Kowalski headlined the delightful program that also featured the Volger Quartet and pianist Uwe Hilprecht performing the Mendelssohn Sixth String Quartet, and tone poems by the mid-century German composers Paul Dessau and Erwin Schuhlhoff. At the end of the program the audience called for two encores.
The featured work on the program was Max Kowalski’s song cycle of the tale of Pierrot Lunaire, written in 1884 by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud, and translated into German by Otto Eric Hartleben in the late 19th century.
The best known song cycle of this groups of poems is that of Arnold Schönberg, which premiered in 1912.
Kowalski the singer told the audience the story about how he discovered Kowalski the composer: In an antique shop, where he found a notebook of Kowalski’s songs that he purchased for one euro. He quickly fell in love with Kowalski’s version of the tale.
“This composition is godsend for a singer,” Kowalski wrote in the program notes. “It is in its own way ironic, witty, sassy, sad and pensive, and wonderful to sing.”
“It’s a very, very very big honor for a German singer to be in the opening concert of the Jewish Festival,” Kowalski told The Jerusalem Post, admitting that he was nervous for his first time ever performing at this festival. “I was maybe 35 years ago in this place” – indicating the synagogue – “and saw a concert of cantor Estrongo Nahama. He was very famous and came from West to East Berlin for a concert. This was amazing for me, it was breathtaking for me, and now 35 years later, here I am!” Kowalski and Dr. Gideon Joffe, of the leaders of the Berlin Jewish community and the host of the evening’s concert, both expressed great pride at being able to showcase the work of a previously unknown Jewish composer. “Nobody knows Max Kowalski,” Kowalski said. “I am very happy and proud to be here.”
Composer Kowalski, who was born in Poland, grew up in Germany and was actually a practicing lawyer who wrote German lieder on the side. In 1938 he was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, but was released in 1939, when he fled to London.
He spent the rest of his life in London, and toward the end of his life began to develop “Zionistic thoughts,” Joffe said.
“It was a wonderful concert, and I find it heartbreaking that a non-Jew with the same name as a Jew tries to reawaken a Jew who survived the Shoah, who was born in former Russia, thought of himself as a real German and understood that it was all a kind of dream,” Joffe told the Post. “It was interesting to hear, to experience this concert.”
The Festival will last until 14 September and will feature a wide range of programs, from talks on the Bible, to programs for children, to book readings and public Shabbat services, at locations all over the center of Berlin.
“The Israeli artists that we bring to Berlin every year are so special, and the Germans really enjoy them,” said Joffe. “It’s a kind of connection between Berlin and Tel Aviv. The same mentality.”