Yehudi Wyner was feted by and featured in a concert on Wednesday, March 22nd at Jordan Hall. Sponsored by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, the concert was a part of an annual series dedicated to the memory of entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael B. Rukin.
Jim Ball, Director of Communications for the Jewish Arts Collaborative, who introduced the evening, spoke warmly and appreciatively of Rukin, who died in 2011, as an early advocate for Soviet Jewry, a strong proponent of the inclusiveness in Jewish institutions of interfaith families and of LGBT rights. Quoting Barry Shrage, executive director of CJP in Boston, Ball said that “what characterized him was his compassion for the outsider.”
The evening was comprised exclusively of works composed by Wyner, from different times in his career, and performed by a stellar roster of Boston area musicians. Wyner himself performed in many of the ensembles, mostly on the piano, which he continues to play exquisitely well.
Wyner is a powerhouse, a prolific composer who continues, in his later 80s, to create energetically. The program’s variety of selections from all stages of Wyner’s career, with a good representation of very recent works, was testament to that.
Things began gently with the Women’s Voices Ensemble interpreting “Shir Hashirim,” a 1994 composition inspired by the Biblical Song of Songs and based on traditional Ashkenazi cantillations; it was led by Yehudi Wyner’s wife, Susan Davenny Wyner, herself an accomplished conductor.
A lively act of “Dragon Dancers,” accompanied by a percussion ensemble, followed. Bearing a large dragon kite around the audience, the dancers led energetically into an account of Wyner’s “O To Be A Dragon,” a 1989 composition based on poems by Marianne Moore and rendered by VOICES Boston, a children’s chorus, along with the Women’s Voices Ensemble.
Three pointedly difficult but engaging ensemble pieces from recent years filled the heart of the program.
“West of the Moon” (2013) featured some lightning-fast virtuoso work on guitar by Oren Fader and on mandolin by William Anderson, with considerable support offered by flute, oboe, violin and cello.
“Duologue for Two Pianos,” written just last year, featured Wyner himself along with Ya-Fei Chung. Intoxicatingly rhythmic yet plaintive, the engaging work demonstrated both Wyner’s and Chung’s considerable virtuosity and musical compatibility.
“Concordance” (2013) for piano quartet, with Wyner on the piano, demonstrated Wyner’s sense of musical drama with him initiating the piece with three pronounced notes executed like a clarion call, reinvoked after a musical travelogue of interleaved complex melodic byways.
The evening culminated in a rendition of a series of selections from incidental music Wyner had written in 1973 for a production of “The Mirror,” a play by Isaac Bashevis Singer done at the Yale Repertory Theater.
Previous to the performance, Wyner, sitting out as musician from the string, wind and percussion ensemble, served as narrator and gave a thorough account of the intricacies of Singer’s plot. Acknowledging Singer as a ”fertile and fecund” writer, Wyner noted the less than romanticized version of ghetto life conveyed by the play.
Observing that it was no “Fiddler on the Roof,” Wyner pointed to Singer’s recognition, in the work, of the dangers of sexual repression. The protagonist, a neglected wife, looks into a mirror where she discovers a demon who invites her into the mirror’s world. “His view in the end is very negative and tragic,” observed Wyner, ruefully, yet with an artistic wink.
The stellar ensemble which played the klezmer-linspired music of “The Mirror,” included noted clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and violinist Daniel Stepner, both of whom played as though they were old hands at klezmer, riffing through Wyner’s reinvented melodies with abandon.
After the concert, Wyner and company were given an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Following that, music critic Lloyd Schwartz interviewed Wyner on stage, drawing him out on a variety of subjects.
Wyner’s wryness and wit were everpresent. In response to Schwartz’s question “what is at the center of the variety of styles that your work represents?” Wyner, without hesitation, responded hilariously “confusion!”
Culminating the interview, Schwartz teasingly asked Wyner to tell one of his favorite jokes and Wyner obliged, rendering a wry observation about an accomplished musician who was less than accomplished as a human being.
Witnessing throughout the evening not only the marked capacities of Wyner as musician, composer and commentator but the sense of his warmth and engagement as a human being, provided evidence of the marked contrast of the joke-teller from the subject of his joke.
Clearly Wyner is not only respected as an artist, but loved as collaborator, partner, and friend – a fine musician and a mensch.
Charles Munitz publishes Boston Arts Diary (www.bostonartsdiary.com).