From Berlin to Hollywood to Jerusalem

Pianist Tal Balshai will be joined by soprano Angela Denoke at the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival this year.

Pianist Tal Balshai will be joined by soprano Angela Denoke at the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival this year. (photo credit: JOHANNES IFKOVITS)
Pianist Tal Balshai will be joined by soprano Angela Denoke at the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival this year.
(photo credit: JOHANNES IFKOVITS)
Tal Balshai is in the perfect place. That applies to his geographical-cultural location, as well as his musical slot.
Jerusalem-born pianist Balshai has been living in Berlin for some years now and will bring his “From Berlin to Beverly Hills” program to the 2014 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, taking place at the YMCA from September 4 to 13.
The 17th edition of the festival, like most of its predecessors, is a varied affair, and takes in some of the finest classical chamber repertoire along with somewhat extramural repertoire.
Pianist and perennial artistic director Elena Bashkirova will contribute her instrumental skills to the onstage proceedings in several slots, teaming up with Dutch bass-baritone singer Robert Holl for a program of Schubert lieder on the first day.
Bashkirova will return on September 12 for an intriguing confluence with Greek-German mezzo-soprano Stella Doufexis for some Schumann song cycles, and will also perform a rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concert No. 2 in E flat major on the last day of the festival.
To give it its full self-explanatory titular due, Balshai’s September 5 date goes by the name of From Berlin to Beverly Hills – An Evening of Cabaret Songs.
The 44-year-old Balshai is responsible for the arrangements and is joined by stellar German soprano opera singer Angela Denoke, with British cellist Tim Park also joining in the fun on several works.
The festival notes describe the concert as “a spectacular program of songs from cabarets, plays, films and musical hits by Jewish composers living in Berlin in the ’20s and early ’30s, including Kurt Weill, Werner Richard Heymann, Friedrich Hollaender and Hanns Eisler.” Balshai has lined up quite a roll call for us.
Naturally, the latter end of the concert’s temporal bracket ends with the rise of Hitler in Germany, when the wonderful and wacky days of anything- goes creation and performance, particularly by the aforementioned composers and their ilk – many of whom were Jewish or of Jewish descent – came to an abrupt end. The era and its principal protagonists have been celebrated for over two decades, all over the world, by German singer and band leader Max Raabe, and his Palast Orchester.
Raabe brought his entertaining throwback show to this country, to huge success, four years ago and now Balshai is offering us another opportunity to revel in some quality music from an era which, somehow, strikes a nostalgic chord in many of us.
That may very well be due to the fact that many of the songs scored by Weill et al. found their way into some of Hollywood’s most popular pieces of celluloid, and have been enjoyed by generations of cinemagoers. “The music comes from a one-off period in European history,” notes Balshai, “and particularly in Berlin.”
Jewish composers of the time certainly put in their 50 pfennigs’ worth, and Balshai has invested long hours not only studying and arranging the musical works produced at the time, but also delving into the social, political and cultural backdrop to the era.
“You have to look back to where that sociopolitical milieu comes from,” says Balshai. “You have to look at the Jewish bourgeoisie, which really started to evolve in the mid-19th century as Jewish intellectuals started to emerge, and which reached a peak around the time of World War I. That’s when a lot of Jews fled the Communist bloc to the West.”
While Balshai points out that in fact, the majority of Berlin’s composers of the time were not Jewish, many of those who were Jewish brought their religious and ethnic baggage to bear on their artistic output. That includes Kurt Weill, who had great success in the States after he relocated there in 1935. “If you listen to Weill’s works, you can hear Jewish influences and biblical elements,” says Balshai. “Songs he wrote in New York include quotations from biblical texts. He came from a religious family, from Dessau [where his father was a cantor], but when he moved to Berlin to find success, he took on the lifestyle of a German intellectual of the 1920s.”
It was a politically, socially and artistically tempestuous time in Germany and, in particular, in Berlin. “The Weimar Republic was established at the end of the First World War. It was the first democracy in Germany’s history and no one had any idea how a democracy was supposed to operate.”
That, says Balshai, led to some unfettered endeavor. “There was a total mess in political terms, there were millions of wounded soldiers, widows and orphans in the aftermath of the war, and there was no censorship of the arts. It was the first time that had happened. You could put on a performance, say, in a café, or paint anything you wanted and display it in public, and no one could say anything about it, and no one would arrest you.”
This also included the rapidly burgeoning cabaret discipline, and works by the likes of Heymann and Hollaender proliferated.
“[Austrian-born Jewish director] Max Reinhardt was the leading impresario of the time and founded the Deutsches Theater (German Theater) in Berlin; he took Heymann and H o l l a e n d e r and established a cabaret venue in the basement of the theater,” Balshai e x p l a i n s .
“For Reinhardt, cabaret meant addressing political issues. He took texts from the most relevant writers of the time, like of course [Jewish journalist, satirist and writer] Kurt Tucholsky. The Nazis later burned Tucholsky’s books.”
Many of the works of Weill et al. have proven to be enduringly popular, and some of them will feature in the From Berlin to Beverly Hills concert. Songs written by Weill, for example, were given highly successful later readings by the The Doors rock group and iconic rock artist David Bowie, as well as several jazz stars such as Ella Fitzgerald.
The multidisciplinary reach of the scores suits Balshai down to the ground. He started out on his artistic path as a jazz musician, later gravitated towards classical music, and reincorporated jazz in his expanding oeuvre after moving to Berlin in 1992.
“I am somewhere in the middle,” he states. “You could say that addressing the works of these Jewish German composers is a perfect fit for me.”
The same could be said for Denoke.
“There are lots of young Germans, around my generation, who are delighted to hear this music performed again,” says Balshai. “It is the music their grandparents heard, and Angela told me her grandmother used to sing these songs.
“I think the Jerusalem concert will fun and moving.”
For tickets and more information: (02) 625-0444 and