Special Features

Bringing Back the Second Avenue Sound

Hollywood orchestrator Patrick Russ restores music of the Yiddish Theater

WALKING DOWN SECOND AVENUE ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE OF MANHATTAN, it is hard to believe that the neighborhood was once dominated by Yiddish theater.

Hardly a trace remains of the thriving center of popular entertainment that once flourished in this area during the early to mid-20th century. It was there that highly popular, charismatic stars such as Aaron Lebedeff, Jennie Goldstein and Molly Picon performed to sold-out audiences.

Music halls were filled with Yiddish vaudeville acts, entertaining audiences with a variety of songs, revues, skits and one-act sketches. Yiddish films such as Yidl mitn fidl (Yidl with His Fiddle) played to packed houses in Second Avenue cinemas and Yiddish songs poured out of the radio, some taken from the shows being performed in the theaters, some written exclusively for broadcast or recordings.

Today the only visible evidence of that glorious past in lower Manhattan is a series of plaques featuring the names of Yiddish theater celebrities that adorn the sidewalk outside what used to be the Second Avenue Deli. None of the old theaters remain. Even the famous Yiddish Art Theater, which provided more sophisticated, literate dramatic works than the light entertainment of the popular Yiddish theater, is now an East Village cineplex.

The theaters are not the only elements of Yiddish theater's heyday that no longer exist; much of the music is also gone. While recordings and sheet music of individual songs associated with the Yiddish theater remain, there exist no complete or authoritative orchestrations of Yiddish theater or vaudeville songs.

According to Milken Archive Artistic Director Neil Levin, full orchestrations do not exist because in most cases, they were never made in the first place. It was not uncommon for conductors to work from sketches or musical charts, which often relied on a significant measure of improvisation. Many were created after the fact for live radio broadcasts or makeshift 78-rpm recordings, both with limited orchestral forces, and usually, if not always, for far smaller ensembles than the actual full pit orchestras found in theaters.


Photo Credit: Phil Fewsmith

After meticulously researching matters concerning orchestra size, instrumentation, and performance styles and idioms, the Milken Archive enlisted the aid of six film orchestrators whose work has graced the scores of some of Hollywood's biggest films of the last 20 years. These six men — Frank Bennett, Ira Hearshen, Paul Henning, Jon Kull, Patrick Russ and Jonathan Sacks — also happen to be among the world's leading reconstruction orchestrators.

One of these artists, Patrick Russ, has been credited by Milken Archive Marketing and A&R Advisor Paul Schwendener as the designer of the Archive's Yiddish theater orchestrations.

The Milken Archive spoke to lead orchestrator Patrick Russ in 2002 about the joys and challenges of reconstructing the Second Avenue orchestra sound.

Milken Archive: You are known for arranging music for movies. However, the Yiddish music in the Archive was composed for the live stage. What are the differences in arranging for movies and arranging for the theater?

Patrick Russ: In general, theater writing in any era is different from a more usual symphonic setting. First, only a limited number of players can fit into the orchestra pit below the stage. So the string count is reduced to allow for a greater variety of instruments among the remaining numbers. Piano or winds often double the strings to ensure a fuller sound. In film, the music furthers the emotions of what you see on screen; you realize what the character is feeling by the music. In theater, the songs often further the plot, so the music reflects the emotion of the words.

MA: The Yiddish theater was in its heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. How did you arrange the music so that it reflected that time period? How does a piece of music’s era come into play when you are arranging?

PR: Performance styles were much different in the earlier part of the 20th century, especially in Yiddish theater. Violin players performed with more “schmaltz”—that is, slight portamento or slides between certain notes, and with greater vibrato than you often hear now. Certain instruments in Yiddish theater have a more prominent role, especially the clarinet and solo violin. These two instruments are often featured as soloists in the klezmer style. The soloists improvise in a minor key (it’s usually a harmonic minor mode) with an almost human vocal quality at times, sometimes with great pathos. Any arrangement would take into account these musical handprints.

MA: Does a foreign language have an effect on the way you orchestrate a piece? How did the Yiddish language play a role in your orchestrations?

PR: Yiddish is similar to certain German dialects, so the foreign language didn’t affect those arrangements as much as the culturally distinct nature of the music or the meaning of the text.

MA: You recommended several other arrangers to assist with the Yiddish theater music. Do different orchestrators have expertise in specific areas that you thought might be beneficial to this music? What would you consider your most special areas of expertise?

PR: There were nearly 50 Yiddish theater songs to set for the Milken Archive. Neil Levin and his co-workers did an outstanding job of selecting the most interesting pieces out of a field of hundreds of songs. I arranged a number of the selections, and I asked other classically trained arrangers with theater experience (there are not as many people with those qualifications as you might think!) to help out with several pieces each. We know one another’s work and often help each other on film scores when we’re under a time crunch. And we often think in a similar way regarding balance, texture, etc., so the music has more of a common thread, like it’s done among friends. Only one arranger is Jewish, and yet our cultural diversity probably has less effect on the outcome than one would think. There are no surviving examples of Yiddish theater music except as it evolved into Fiddler on the Roof. So we had no models, but instead tried to envision an idealized performance in which perhaps a few extra players were present. We wrote out the improvisations, and told performers to ad lib as desired. Very few did!

In day-to-day film work, I’m often pegged to do large-scale orchestral pieces, or pieces with a classical flair. The work styles actually vary a lot, from gothic orchestrations to complement the rock group Korn, to opera without words. In the concert field, I work with several opera singers and with classical guitarist Christopher Parkening. I also try to do one or two CDs each year of film music reconstruction. The most recent, Erich Korngold’s Seahawk with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, was nominated for a 2003 Grammy® as Best Crossover Classical Recording, which is good publicity for raising awareness of the high quality of film music from its Golden Age.

As a Hollywood orchestrator, Russ has worked on the scores for a wide variety of films ranging from Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Dead Poets Society (1989) and Far From Heaven (2002) to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Ghost (1990) and Rush Hour (1998).

Russ also penned arrangements for the 1996 Olympics opening ceremony and the Grammy Awards with Kathleen Battle, as well as internationally broadcast performances by opera legends Jessye Norman and Placido Domingo.

He also worked on the Milken Archive's reconstruction of Genesis Suite.

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    Volume 13 Yiddish Theater


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