A Night at the Opera

letter-447577_1280

OK, it wasn’t the opera. I don’t do opera. Kol isha, and all that.

It was really the Hollywood Bowl, and the LA Philharmonic. I don’t do that too often either (the last time was seven or eight years earlier), but a member of my Derech Hashem shiur had been graciously prodding me for the better part of a year to join him and his wife at their box. Given that my wife majored in music back in the old days and we don’t get opportunities like this too often, I gave in.

The weather was picture perfect, and the seats better than that. The box was literally right in front of the stage (which did mean that all we could see were the strings), valets carried our take-out dinners from the car and set them on a table bedecked with white linen and a rose. An MBD concert this wasn’t.

Now that I mention it, MBD helped me with the guilt. I kept fretting about what the neighbors would think if they learned that I was at the Bowl. After the music started, though, the sheer beauty, elegance, and sensibility of the music (all Brahms and Prokofiev) just dwarfed the pop-star wannabe supposedly Jewish music I’ve had to listen to for years as the kids grew up. Push come to shove, I probably did much less damage to my soul listening to that performance than the mind-numbing stuff I’ve been subjected to on long family trips in the car.

The conversation at dinner (the Bowl invites bringing along picnic baskets) was typically frum – we talked about chinuch and the kids. As the hour of 8 approached, we had to transition to a more cultural mode as the musicians, dressed in white jackets if they were old-timers, or just white shirts and blouses if they weren’t, started filing on to the stage. So here were the two male members of the foursome schmoozing in front of the stage when a voice from above sonorously intones, “Sholom Aleichem!” It was one of the second violinists, who spotted the yarmulkes and couldn’t resist a conversation with a few landsleit. Two minutes later, this time with all of the musicians seated and waiting for the concertmaster to walk in, with thousands of pairs of eyes focused on this very professional group of performers, one of the first violins spots us and gives us a wave!

So is this a Jewish orchestra, or what? No, it isn’t. The ethnic mix is actually quite remarkable. As best as I could tell, there were a whole lot of Chinese, a few Indians and Thais, and a Japanese and Korean or two. The other side of the Pacific was definitely overrepresented. Throw in a bunch of pretty obvious MOT, and a few folks who looked liked their grandparents might even have been born in the lower 48, and you had the orchestra. The conductor – a young Chinese woman making her debut with the orchestra – was animated and made anticipating the next musical highlight much easier.

Which brings me to the puzzle of the evening. Why was it, I asked myself, that with all of the Asian participants, and all of the openness of LA to multiculturalism, was everyone listening to the music of DWEMs? Why weren’t all those talented musicians playing 19th century Chinese orchestral music? Was the Beijing Symphony laden with young blonde performers from California?

Likely, there is some explanation that a novice musicologist could provide. It isn’t really important. Somehow, the forces of history (read: Divine Providence) saw to it that history unfolded in a definite pattern. Much of that pattern was discerned by Noach, as it dawned upon him that his three sons would not be equal partners in the reconstruction of a single global culture, but that his three progeny would author three independent approaches to life. I never tire of reading Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s penetrating analysis (Genesis 9:27) of the relationship between two sons of Noach, Yefes and Shem, and by extension, between the esthetic and the rational. The concert gives me an excuse to share my enthusiasm with others:

Thus we have placed before us the representatives of the three main tendencies which characterise people and nations. Shem having the names and conception of things and conditions, represents the mind, the spirit; contrasted to him Cham, the highest power of glowing hot senuality…Yefes represents that which lies in the middle, that center point in which mind and sentiment meet… The greatest ado in the world has been made by Cham, that sensuality, worldliness, which harnesses all that belongs to spirit and mind to their chariots of fame, and only allows intellect to be used or valued as far as it serves as a means of furthering the material side of life, nations that conquer, plunder and enjoy. Nations pass across through the stage who represent hardly anything but raw force, sensuality and bestiality.

But nations also appear which use their forces in the service of beauty who characterize themselves in nurturing art, aesthetic beauty. They are conscious of some higher ideal up to which mankind is to work itself out of its crudeness. This tendency teaches people to cloak raw sensuality in the garb of respectability and graciousness. Through grace and beauty they foster a taste for more spiritual activities, music, poetry, art. All those nations who cherish that which appeals to feelings represent the Yefes character.

But the education of raw unrefined humanity to the sense of beauty is not the highest…Only that which can elevate the mind to a knowledge of, and the feelings to a recognition of what is good and true in itself, leads a man to the height of what he is meant to be. Nations who have made their contribution by cultivating the spiritual amongst mankind to a recognition of the Truth have worked in the Shem-character for the happiness and well-being of humanity.

When we look around in historical facts we can say: the stem of Yefes reached its fullest blossoming in Yavan, the Greeks: that of Shem in Ever, the Hebrews, Israel, who bore and bear the Shem Hashem as their God through the world of nations. Right to the present day it is only these two races, the descendants of Yefes and Shem, the Greeks and the Jews who have been the real educators and teachers of humanity… For all the spiritual treasures which the world has acquired these two have to be thanked, and everything, which, even today, works at the culture and education of mankind connects up with that which Yefes and Shem brought to the world. The spiritual gifts of the Romans too was only a gift of the Hellenes. Yefes has ennobled the world esthetically. Shem enlightened it spiritually.

You may also like...

21 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    “Why in the world should you feel guilty for going to a concert to listen to Brahms and Prokofiev? What was the hava amina?”

    – it could shtehr a shidduch

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Our values are not only esthetic. The lyrics have to be true.

  3. eliXelx says:

    How can we read the psalms and deny Dylan?
    How can we talk about the sweet singer of Israel and not enjoy Joni Mitchell?
    How can we believe that King David danced infront of the Ark and refuse to listen to Bob Marley!
    Good instrumental music is uplifting; but when the words and music are one that’s Divine!

  4. yitz says:

    Joel Rich – “As with most Chassidic music born in Europe, many of these melodic motifs were influenced by the music of the surrounding culture. The Rabbis of Modzitz, however, were able to weave a distinctive musical and Judaic fabric into their compositions of dances, marches, waltzes and extended niggunim… these equisite melodies [were] written by Rabbis who were instinctively first-rate musical creators…[Velvel Pasternak, “Melodies of Modzitz”, Foreword].
    Bob Miller – thank you for your clarification.
    Leibel Black – Macy Nulman’s books on music are from 1975 and 1985, and appear [from an internet search] to be out-of-print. Can you provide us with any insight about them?

  5. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    R’ Yitzhok: Why in the world should you feel guilty for going to a concert to listen to Brahms and Prokofiev? What was the hava amina?

  6. Leibel Black says:

    Our knowledge of authentic Jewish music is severly lacking. The scholarship exists in the published writings of Macy Nulman, former Director of YU’s cantorial school.

  7. Phil S. says:

    Maybe we should make a new rule. (I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek.) In order to attend one of these cultural events, you must promise to write an excellent essay about it, such as R’ Adlerstein’s — or, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s: http://www.tfdixie.com/special/feldman1.htm

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Yeshaya Yitzchak,
    What would be the contact info (phone or email) for someone outside the NYC area to find out more about obtaining the new translation by Rabbi Haberman? Thanks!

  9. Yeshaya Yitzchak says:

    It was wonderful to read Rabbi Adlerstein’s column, even more so because he quotes Rabbiner Hirsch. For those interested, there is a new, updated translation of the Hirsch Chumash by Rabbi Daniel Haberman available through the Kehilla in Washington Heights. So far, only Braishis through Vayikra have been published, but Bamidbar will be out soon. The translation is more precise and much easier to read. One example of a quote used by Rabbi Adlerstein would be as follows:

    Old Translation : When we look around in historical facts we can say: the stem of Yefes reached its fullest blossoming in Yavan, the Greeks: that of Shem in Ever, the Hebrews, Israel, who bore and bear the Shem Hashem as their God through the world of nations.

    New Translation: Considering the historical reality we may say that the fullest flowering of Yefes was Yavan, ancient Greece.The fullest flowering of Shem is Aver,the Hebrews, the people of Israel which proclaims B’Shem Hashem amomgst the nations of the world.

    Compare “When we look around in historical facts” which is really not English to “Considering the historical reality”, which is.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    Yitz, my question in comment #6 above was specifically regarding the music of Yefes, but not only classical.

  11. Joel Rich says:

    Rest assured, real Negina is alive and well in the Chassidic world. ===================================================

    Interesting comment. Since the Chassidic movement doesn’t date itself back to bayit sheni, where did their original niggunim come from? Has anyone ever studied whether there is any correlation between local music modes and those of chasidim at the inception of the movement?

    KT

  12. yitz says:

    I’ve also heard that Rav Hutner ‘sang opera in the shower’, although this fact was excised by the powers that be from a book about him.
    ASJ: As to Heavy Metal, like I said on your blog, for someone who listens to it only 1% of the time, you sure are hung up about it! And Rav Adlerstein did NOT go to the opera, as he mentions in the opening sentence.
    As to Bob’s query, “Is this to imply that Yefes’ musical inspiration has now run out? There may be reason to say so, and not only for classical music.”
    Rest assured, real Negina is alive and well in the Chassidic world. The new Modzitzer Rebbe Shlita has already composed some niggunim for the Yamim Noraim! [And we don’t need Yefes to do it…]

  13. Neil Harris says:

    I’ve heard from two different older talmidim of Rav Hutner, that he did enjoy opera.

  14. mb says:

    A Rabbi goes to the Hollywood Bowl?
    Nobody I know would do such a thing.

    BTW, I was there the previous Thursday. Amongs other things on that beautiful evening was the LA Philarmonic playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, alternating with a Salsa Band! The violin lead was substituted by a trombone. Imagine that!

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Dilbert said, ” If you look at the standard playlist of American orchestras, music composed after Shostakovich is pretty uncommon, although there are always dedicated attempts to sneak in some every now and then”

    Is this to imply that Yefes’ musical inspiration has now run out? There may be reason to say so, and not only for classical music.

  16. A Simple Jew says:

    If you can enjoy opera, perhaps I could enjoy heavy metal….

    See here.

  17. dilbert says:

    1. Hmmmmm. I have been told on good authority that RYBS did go to the opera. And I recall that another Rosh Yeshiva(? Rav Hutner) also enjoyed opera, although via recordings

    2. The masses in the United States that enjoy classical music have definite tastes, and those tastes run from baroque to early modern. If you look at the standard playlist of American orchestras, music composed after Shostakovich is pretty uncommon, although there are always dedicated attempts to sneak in some every now and then

  18. MuMU says:

    Whats the big deal ? Its about time you went to a concert. Everyone has been going for years, from Rabbonim to children. I dont know what yuor big chidush is.

  19. isidore says:

    The article ignores a sophisticated Eastern culture and spirituality which was not based on Jewish(Shem)or Hellenic(Yefes) antecedents.Consquently to say that this article is correct in maintaining a Jewish or Grecian cause for all of the world’s developement (“teachers of humanity”) is questionable.Futhermore in accordance with the article’s logic, shouldn’t we admire Christianity for synthesizing Jewish and Greek thougt and spreading it to Europe and around the world?

  20. joel rich says:

    I kept fretting about what the neighbors would think if they learned that I was at the Bowl.
    ====================================================

    That human beings are not angels and have a need for down-time? That HKB””H created the beauty of music to be appreciated by his creation?

    That you were trying to increase your achievement level- As I once heard a shiur which quoted the Pat Hashulchan(a student of the Gra[Vilna Gaon}) and the Gra as saying ” ki rov taamei hatora vsodot shirei halivim vsodot tikunei zohar e efshar lyada biladah. val yada yicholim bnai adam lamut bkolot nafsham bniumuta v’yicholim lhachayot meitim bsodota hagnuzim btora” (music is a very powerful tool in understanding how the world really operates)

    Given our seeming lack of a mesora (tradition) of music from the Bet Mikdash, Perhaps any music that motivates in the right direction works. I once attended a wedding in Boro Park where the band played Eric Clapton’s “My darling you look wonderful tonight” (instrumental version) as the dinner music. To the best of my knowledge no one else recognized it or was offended by the musical quality then again I think many know the origin of MBD’s Yidden music.
    KT