By Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience
A contemporary revivalist of Yiddish song draws on the legacy of the 20th century Yiddish “voice of the people”
In appreciation of Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell’s recent concert at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music an event that featured both his duo Tsvey Brider with accordionist Dmitri Gaskin and Gaskin’s instrumental klezmer trio Baymele, I invited Russell for an extended conversation. Russell is a bass vocalist with operatic training who has turned his attention primarily to Yiddish song over the past decade. During these years he has emerged as a popular performer of Jewish music with an impassioned following and a busy international touring schedule.
Russell spoke with great warmth about his recent collaborations with Gaskin. The UCLA recital, which was sponsored by the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience, featured new song settings of classics of modernist Yiddish poetry that the two developed together. The song melodies were composed by Russell and later arranged by Gaskin—a process Russell likened to “giving your home to an architect and having it transformed into a palace.”
In our conversation, I hoped to learn more about Russell’s affinity for the work of Sidor Belarsky (1898-1975). The Ukrainian-born Belarsky trained as an opera singer in Odessa and immigrated to the United States in 1930. In the U.S., Belarsky rose to stardom as a beloved figure in American Yiddish music. In its seriousness of tone and classical formality, Belarsky’s work was distinct from the sentimentality and high drama of Yiddish musical theater and also differed from the idiomatic synagogue music of cantorial singers—although Belarsky was capable of singing in both of these Jewish styles. Instead, Belarsky leveraged his classical training to bring a finely controlled approach to his interpretations of Yiddish folk and art songs. The Yiddish art song tradition draws on 19th-century Romantic lieder, inflected by melodic patterns borrowed from Yiddish folk songs and with emotive Yiddish lyrics that referred to the intimacies and specificities of Jewish life in Europe. Belarsky was a memorialist of the experience of the “Old country” whose musicality and vocal warmth struck a chord with American Jews of the immigrant generation and beyond.
Looking back on his decade as a performer of Yiddish, Russell comments, “I don’t think it was an accident I started with Belarsky.” Like Belarsky, Russell is a classically trained singer with an interest in folk songs and an impulse to represent his vision of Jewishness in music. As a music student in a conservatory, Russell recalls that he gravitated toward the Brahms song cycle Zigeunerlieder, a collection of songs meant to invoke sounds of Roma folk music. The voice and piano texture, tendencies towards minor tonalities, and a certain liveliness and gravitation towards dance tempos in the compositional style of Zigeunerlieder is reminiscent of the Yiddish art song composers performed by Belarsky. Brahms’s foray into “minority” folk music conveys an ethos of fantasy about rural and subaltern experience that is reminiscent of the approach to Jewish folklore pursued by composers of Yiddish art song in their own explorations of Jewish themes. Russell said that his interest in this piece suggests that “I had an affinity for this sound even before I acquired a taste for Yiddish music.”
Russell recalls that when he first began to perform material from the Belarsky songbook he encountered negative responses from musicians associated with the klezmer revival scene. In the view of some of his colleagues in the Yiddish music world, Belarsky represented a musical sensibility that was overly stuffy. According to this criticism, Yiddish lieder lacked the dance energy and roughhewn folk sensibility that is considered desirable in the klezmer community.
While Belarsky’s present-day detractors may not have appreciated the concert hall ethos of Belarsky’s music, Russell said “To me he seemed very heymish (Yiddish, home-style, comfortable and familiar). He was someone I wanted to emulate.” Russell was driven by an impulse to develop the repertoire associated with Belarsky.
Russell was struck by the fact that Belarsky comfortably addressed different segments of the Jewish population in his concert presentations and recordings and was able to comfortably shift musical identities within the Jewish world. He was able to offer a convincing musical representation of a variety of Jewish communities. “There were different versions of Belarsky. A Russian version, an Israeli version, a leftist labor version.” Russell remarked that for each of these groups within the Jewish community, Belarsky was able to convene a “quasi-synagogal space” in which the specific needs of that community could be addressed in musical terms. Towards this end, Belarsky developed a broad-ranging repertoire that embraced classical song, Yiddish pieces addressing Jewish life in Europe, and cantorial music.
Russell seemed to suggest that he has benefitted from Belarsky’s musical experiments and the ways in which he was able to tap into multiple veins of a broadly construed musical Jewishness. These repertoires offer Russell expansive resources to connect his aesthetics to his sense of himself as a Jewish person. He compared this vein of performance to his years in opera. “People say that this music is too stuffy, that it’s like opera. I was actually in opera. As a bass in an opera, I would sing roles; I would sing the villain, or the soprano’s father, or God. The only thing I need in order to be able to sing Belarsky’s music is to be a Jew. He showed up as the archetypal Jew.”
For Russell, Belarsky presents a useful model for how to integrate artistry and Jewishness. The flexible and generous performance of identity that Belarsky embodied is compelling to Russell. Belarsky’s example has helped him to cultivate a powerful stage persona working in the Yiddish world. In his performances, Russell invokes Belarsky’s sensitivity to the multiple Jewish communities that live separately but that share a musical heritage. These multiple worlds of Jewishness hold in common a cultural core that can be activated through the affecting sounds of Yiddish song.
Today, Russell may be the artist most associated with Sidor Belarsky’s work. This association is evident online; the first page of a google search for Belarsky draws up videos and images of Russell alongside articles on the old star. Russell mentioned that his feeling of reticence about the way his work vies for space in the digital marketplace with one of his idols is softened by the fact that he has been able to spend time with Isabel Belarsky, Sidor’s daughter. Russell’s friendship with Isabel helped deepen his sense of her father, conveying an impression of him as not just a person, but as a father. This personal connection has further fostered Russell’s self-confidence in his role as the principal torchbearer for the Belarsky legacy.