More than 30 recordings and countless recitals of 17th- and 18th-century music for antique keyboards have earned harpsichordist and pianist Byron Schenkman accolades from New York to Seattle, where he made his mark in the 1990s as cofounder of Seattle Baroque Orchestra. Schenkman’s thoughtful manner belies an ambitious, searching entrepreneur who feels something like a religious calling for his work.
A sweet guy who likes to learn Torah and confesses to “shomer Shabbos envy,” Schenkman, 50, has emerged as one of Seattle’s friendliest concert hosts. His brief, from-the-heart commentary before each piece drops just enough context around the music to make it personal. On February 12, Schenkman will be joined by the virtuoso klezmer violinist and composer Steven Greenman for performances of pieces by Jewish and Russian composers. Unlike his season opener September 18, when Schenkman touched on the Mendelssohn family’s efforts to become properly assimilated upper-class Berliners, “Russians and Jews” will explore a world quite distant from the Mendelssohns’ polite drawing rooms.
Jewish in Seattle: What do Russian Jewish composers at the turn of the 20th century have to do with your expertise in 18th- and 19th-
century chamber music?
Byron Schenkman: I’m always interested in Jewish music. Growing up as a classical musician, I was always disappointed that most of the composers were not Jewish. So the idea of an art music based on Jewish themes is exciting to me.
How does this concert fit in with the rest of your series, with all its Bach and Mozart and Mendelssohn?
All my programs are about how composers relate to their world. So in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, here’s an interesting group of composers at an interesting time. One of the things I love about this series: I do about half and half period/modern. A lot of the best musicians I know do both.
Why is this music important?
In spite of the extraordinary impact that Ashkenazi Jews have had on American classical music, it is rare to find music by Jewish composers that openly embraces the musical traditions of our own people. Discovering this rich repertoire of unabashedly Jewish art music offers a unique connection to the cultural heritage of Ashkenazi Jews. It creates a deeper connection to the cultural heritage of the Ashkenazi Jewish people.
What will we get out of it?
Ultimately, my top priorities in all my work are simcha [happiness] and tikkun olam [repairing the world]. I hope that people who come to any concert by Byron Schenkman & Friends will experience joy and healing which they will then take out into the world with them.
Why do people come to your concerts?
Some people come because they had a long, stressful work week, and they’re coming to be soothed, transported. Some come out of scholarly, intellectual curiosity: What were the Russian Jewish musicians doing during the early 20th century? That question comes from a very cerebral place. Some are coming to be engaged physically: watching musicians perform is like watching an athlete. And some come for the spiritual experience: to be in a room with others while something transcendent is happening. Music as a shared experience transports us to another plane.
You’ve compared this to attending synagogue.
Yes! There are people who come to my synagogue because they love the music. Some come to pray. Some come to do Torah study and really want the intellectual experience. And some come because it’s a social thing, to see friends. All this is true of the concerts as well. Even if somebody’s coming for one of those reasons, they’ll get a little of the others: emotional stimulation for the intellectual; social connections for the one who came to pray.
Russians and Jews will be performed February 12 at 7 p.m. at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle. Tickets and information.