Review by Danny Gaisin
The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra under its current Board, executive director and permanent conductor have proven to nothing if not eclectic. Classical assemblages are usually reputedly somewhat highbrow, but not the HPO. Younger audiences are enticed and welcomed, new and more contemporary works performed, plus other creative genres included. Case in point; last evening’s Literary Series offering,- a reading and musical quartet featuring Gary Barwin’s book – “Yiddish for Pirates”.
Given the intimacy of the First Ontario’s Studio Theatre and its cabaret milieu, the evening was a hundred fascinating minutes – although a familiarity with ‘Yiddishkeit’ was a definite bonus. *
Barwin opened the evening with a saxophone solo that was an improvisation on a traditional nigun. This compositional form is based on Chassidic devotional prayer melodies from the early 18th century and usually has repetitive themes and non-word accents. Srul Irving Glick’s works oftimes had a ‘biddie biddie bim bum’ repetition stereotype. Then, after an introductory reading, the HPO’s string quartet, ‘four shayna maideles’: – Bethany Bergman & Elizabeth Loewen Andrews – violins; cellist Laura Jones and Elspeth Thomson – violist, performed a rather sombre and dirge-like rendition of ‘Kol Nidre’, the most dramatic work of the Hebrew liturgy. The name is taken from the opening two words of the prayer and can be translated as ‘All vows’. The Kol Nidre then goes on to state that “bonds; devotions; promises; obligations penalties and oaths from this Day of Atonement until the next may come to us for good…because we repent in them” Naturally this is a supposed life-affecting moment, but it is also a moment of hope & positivism.
Barwin’s story is an imaginary tale about a press-ganged young Jewish boy named Moishe, circa fourteen nineties who ends up sailing with Columbus. The harshness of sailing life, instinctive bigotries as well as the hatred felt towards the Spanish attitudes and torture mandated by the Roman Catholic church during the infamous Inquisition are unsubtly portrayed in the vengeful acts the pirate ship inflicts on their Iberian victims. The readings are interspersed with time-appropriate musical interludes including a delightful rendition of de Falla’s Dance No. 1 when the ships reach the New World. Played by the HPO quartet, this plus a couple of Barwin’s own compositions made the evening flow smoothly and pass far too fast.
The writer includes many stereotypical Jewish psychological images, one of which resonated; Moishe’s finding an island with one Jew but two synagogues – one -NOT to belong to. ‘Oy Vey’ – that comment touches very close to home! Berwin utilizes Moishe’s parrot as narrator and he is about as ‘ferkochta’ a bird as can be imagined. Sitting on a ‘mischuganah boychikel’s shoulder and observing his crazy world brings the audience images too funny for words to describe.
This scribe whose grandparents may have known Yiddish; (a German derivitive but with Eastern European idioms and softer phrasing), but I can’t recall ever hearing them or my parents using the language. Yet, I somehow knew the meaning of every word or phrase that Barwin included in his recitation. Maybe Yiddishkeit is somehow transmitted via one’s genomes.
We took the time post-event, to personally thank the author & the quartet ladies for what was a super evening. Gary Barwin – ‘du bist a mensch!’