From Poland with piano love

The entire four-day program (November 13-16) has a Polish scent to it, with many of the concerts devoted to works by Chopin, although not all pertain to the classical genre.

NOAM ZYLBERBERG will perform ‘Tango in the Night.’  (photo credit: MARTA ZAJAC-KRYSIAK)
NOAM ZYLBERBERG will perform ‘Tango in the Night.’
(photo credit: MARTA ZAJAC-KRYSIAK)
Nostalgia, as the worldy-wise might observe, ain’t what it used to be. Noam Zylberberg takes that line, too, even though his principal form of artistic expression delves into the past, the Polish past to be exact.
Zylberberg, whose grandparents hail from Poland, reverted to his roots and has been a resident of Warsaw for the past four to five years. For much of that time he has fronted his own ensemble, which goes by the name of Mala Orkiestra Dancingowa – Little Dance Orchestra – with which he will perform in the Studio space of the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday (10:30 p.m.) as part of this year’s Pianos Festival.
The entire four-day program (November 13-16) has a Polish scent to it, with many of the concerts devoted to works by Chopin, although not all pertain to the classical genre.
The Guy Mintus Trio, with bassist Omri Ever-Hadani and drummer Yonatan Rosen, for example, will deliver some jazzy and other improvised takes on Chopin preludes, nocturnes and mazurkas at the Rebecca Crown Auditorium at 6 p.m. on Thursday, with plenty of groove and even some flamenco intent thrown in for good measure. And pianist Omri Mor’s early Improvising Chopin slot on Friday (10 a.m.) will see the gifted musician fuse a multitude of styles and disciplinary strands through the base material, including Andalusian music, jazz, blues and Arabic textures.
The title of the Zylberberg show, “Tango into the Night,” alludes to a freer and shake-a-leg slant on Polish music.
“I hope some people will dance while we play,” says the pianist-troupe leader. “There will be some chairs but also plenty of room to dance, too.”
You might say it was only natural for Zylberberg to find his way to Polish music, and to relocate to Warsaw, but it takes a little work to get to the core of the motives for his career and geographical shift.
“There are Israeli musicians living all over the world,” he posits. “There are many in Berlin and New York. OK, so an Israeli living in Warsaw may sound a little more exotic, but why not?
Why not indeed, especially if you have some familial ties to the place and culture. Once again, it takes the pianist a while to follow my train of thought, that his genes led him to Warsaw, and the music that was all the rage there in the 1920s and 1930s.
“I didn’t hear Polish music at home, but I think more and more people have started rediscovering their roots,” Zylberberg observes. “That may be something connected to the third generation. You see Russians wanting to look into their family’s past and that sort of thing.”
So, what led him to the rousing sounds of Poland when his paternal grandparents – who made aliyah in the 1930s – were still living a peaceful life there?
“You know, today, you can go into YouTube and hear all sorts of things,” he says, again skirting around my genetic chord theory. “I didn’t feel I had to move to Warsaw just because my grandparents came from there. It just worked out that I discovered this music by accident.”
I didn’t buy the YouTube story. After all, by the same token, Zylberberg might have latched on to avant-garde jazz or Cuban songs. We eventually ended up on the same page.
“I took a great interest in the family story, and I’d visited Warsaw a number of times previously,” he says. “I made all sorts of connections with people there.” One thing led to another. “It is natural for me to connect with music, so it sort of developed from there.”
Once he got into it, Zylberberg went for broke. He says that growing up in Israel, with “good old Israeli music,” also played its part in his familial cultural about-turn.
“I always liked the music of the 1920s and 1930s. It was always a style that was dear to my heart. It was a natural bond for me. People in Israel didn’t really know the music of Warsaw.”
Then again, had they heard it, they would have had a sense of the familiar, albeit by something of a circuitous, “Israelified” route. “The music of Warsaw impacted significantly on the culture of Israel, in the 1950s and 1960s. The entire new Israeli style that evolved in the 1930s and 1940s was completely based on the Varsovian style. That was brought here by all sorts of musicians from Warsaw and integrated in the young cabaret scene in Tel Aviv – places like the [satirical] Mattateh Theater. The most important person in all this was Moshe Wilensky,” Zylberberg explains.
Composer, lyricist, and pianist Wilensky made aliyah in 1932 and became revered as a pioneer of Israeli song.
“You could say that Wilensky created the new Israeli song style,” Zylberberg adds.
But Zylberberg says he is not one for harking back to the good old days.
“I don’t go for nostalgia,” he declares. “I am anti-nostalgia. Good music is good music, regardless of when it dates from.”
ZYLBERBERG SETTLED in the Polish capital and the word gradually got out that there was an Israeli musician in town who was looking to dig into some of the local blasts from the past and infuse them with 21st-century vibes. The Israeli had to build the whole thing up from scratch.
“There were no charts to work from, from the 1920s and 1930s,” he says. “I had to write the notes down. The scores were not published back then. I listened to the recordings and jotted down all the notes.”
That was something of a mammoth task, but Zylberberg was determined to do justice to the popular Polish music of the day. That also entailed making sure he had the right cohorts to get the job done well. To that end he put together an orchestra of 12 players, all of whom came with plenty of street cred and with a solid backdrop in classical climes.
For Zylberberg it was never a matter of just resurrecting the sounds that got Warsaw’s entertainment consumers up off their backsides and out onto the dance floor. “Naturally, in Warsaw of the day, they played a lot of foxtrots, waltzes and things that were closer to swing [jazz]. I don’t really call it swing, because it’s really pre-swing.” There was an international feel to the music. “They could have played those things in Paris, London or New York.”
Then again, the Polish capital had something special to offer. “What was really popular at the time in Warsaw was tango. Tango was really popular, all over Europe, at the beginning of the 20th century, but that had faded by the twenties. For some reason, the people of Warsaw fell in love with tango, and it was still popular in the 1920s and 1930s.”
This did not involve wholesale importing of the Argentinean dance music.
“The Poles started writing their own tangos,” Zylberberg explains. “It quickly developed into something unique – not Argentinean tango; rather, Polish tango.”
That also found its way here, with Wilensky et al.
“If you look at Israeli music in the 1940s and 1950s, you’ll find a lot of tango in there,” he adds, “Polish tango.”
The orchestra’s audience will not hear exactly the same sounds that Varsovians danced to close to a century ago. Zylberberg says he had no interest in just replicating the fashionable sounds of pre-World War II Warsaw. “The way musicians play music today has changed. There is a different approach to sound.”
The orchestra leader wanted his colleagues to bring something new to the Polish fray, and to express themselves in the sonic bottom line. “It is not so easy for a musician of today who – say – knows what swing music sounds like, to play the music as if he doesn’t know what it is,” he chuckles. “We have to forget what we know and to play the music in a new way.”
Notwithstanding the fresh take on Warsaw’s yesteryear music, the Jerusalem Theater audience might well be tempted to get into some hoofing from way back when. Zylberberg has no problem with that.
“We want people to feel good at the concert. We don’t dress like they did in the 1930s. It is not a show in that sense. That’s not the idea at all. If someone wants to come along in a T-shirt and jeans, that’s fine, too.”
The ensemble has the track record to back up the leader’s expectations. “People of all ages come to our shows, from people in their 80s who may have grown up with this music, to teenager couples who may be on their first date. It’s all good.”
For tickets and more information about the Pianos Festival: (02) 560-5755 and