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New venues for Jewish Music Festival

Event expands with help of synagogues

alonso nichols/tufts university

Pianist and Tufts University professor Donald Berman has put together a classical show at MIT called “From the Lower East Side to Carnegie Hall.’’

The Third Annual Boston Jewish Music Festival, running Thursday through March 11, has as its main logo an image of Tevye with an electric guitar, so no surprise that it offers a bit of everything.

It’ll open Thursday at the Somerville Theatre with mandolinist David Grisman joining the Andy Statman Trio. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Yehudi Wyner will lead a program of Yiddish art songs by his father, the celebrated New York cantor Lazar Weiner, at Old South Meeting House. Pianist and Tufts professor Donald Berman has put together a classical evening at MIT called “From the Lower East Side to Carnegie Hall.’’ Israeli rock-funk band Hadag Nahash will invade Johnny D’s. There’ll be Israeli jazz in Newton, “A Sephardic Journey’’ in Brookline, and “Family Purim Bashes’’ in area temples. It’ll wrap up at Ryles Jazz Club, where local ensembles will vie for the coveted title of BJMF 2012 Klezmer Idol.

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What’s new this time around? “Last year,’’ says Jim Ball, the festival’s director of communications, “we did some events at temples on Friday nights, and that’s blossomed this year. We have eight different congregations who, in free Shabbat evenings, are doing services with some of the artists who are playing in the rest of the festival. One thing we did that no other place had really done - and other festivals are starting to pick up on this - is to partner with Jewish congregations.’’

Among this year’s highlights, he says, is “our opening-night concert with Andy Statman and David Grisman, two legendary performers who haven’t been here in a few years. Andy is an Orthodox Jew who plays clarinet and klezmer stuff, but he also learned to play the mandolin from David. They do stuff that’s sort of folk-infused, with bluegrass, a little bit of everything thrown in.’’

He also singled out the concert on Saturday. “Basya Schechter heads a group called Pharaoh’s Daughter in New York, but this is an independent project that she’s done with some New York musicians where she’s taken the Yiddish poetry of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and turned it into really a stunning musical evening.’’ It’ll take place at Kehillath Israel in Coolidge Corner.

Then there’s Berman’s concert, which brings together music by Wyner, Ernst Bloch, Jonathan Leshnoff, and Paul Schoenfield. The idea behind the title, Berman says, “was that the boats docked at Ellis Island and the composers walked off the boats with their Old World ideas and found their way into the classical-music world. And there’s a great Jewish tradition of performers and composers whose music became art music rather than wedding music or some other folk tradition.’’

Berman has made a specialty of neglected American music; his recordings include “The Undiscovered Ruggles’’ and “The Unknown Ives.’’ When the festival asked him to curate a concert, he says, “I thought it would be great to do a classical-music concert that was encoded with the DNA of Jewish themes and the themes of immigration but wasn’t ostensibly a Jewish song fest. Schoenfield’s ‘Café Music’ is often the fun piece at the end of a mainstream program - it sounds sort of jazzy. But when you put it in the context of three other composers with a similar background, it takes on a deeper, richer meaning. It has Jewish roots. So that’s how I thought about it, as I do with all the American music I’m doing.’’

He found his Bloch piece, the Piano Quintet No. 1, last year at Radcliffe. “It starts with these quarter-tone inflections in the strings, which is really unusual for 1923. The last movement has, as in Ives, some bugle-like references to war. Bloch had to leave Europe, and he was living in Cleveland at the time, and I think that that immigration experience was deeply embedded in the music.’’

The Leshnoff work is a premiere for the festival. “I got in touch with him,’’ Berman explains, “and he sent me a piece he wrote last year for Gil Shaham in an arrangement for viola, clarinet, and piano; it’s called ‘The Yiddish Suite.’ This one has Hasidic tunes, some Sabbath tunes, just some tunes he made up. It’s a great opener for the concert.’’

And finally there’s Wyner’s “Tanz und Maisele,’’ into which, it turns out, “a couple of tunes that his father wrote for Yehudi when he was 2 years old find their way, but you wouldn’t know it unless you heard it in the context of this concert. It’s really a fun piece.’’

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

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