Each movement of Joel Hoffman’s Self-Portrait with Gebirtig for cello and chamber orchestra utilizes three of the principle melodies from songs of the early 20th-century poet and folk song composer Mordechai Gebirtig.
Ker, bezemel, ker (Sweep Little Broom!), for the first movement, is a social commentary about a poor housemaid employed by insensitive, condescending, and even malicious taskmasters. She has her revenge when their son falls in love with her and proposes marriage. “Sweep little broom, sweep!” reads the final strophe; “I won’t be serving any longer. The madam of the house will now be my mother-in-law; and the man of the house my father-in-law.”
Bay g’virim a dinstmoyd tsu zayn (To Be a Maid for the Well-to-Do), for the second movement, is another housemaid’s lament about cruel employers who begrudge her adequate food and a boss who makes advances on her.
A zelkhe tsvey goldene tsep (What a Magnificent Pair of Golden Braids) for the final movement—in which a young man asks forgiveness from his wife (or lover?) for his unmasked disappointment at her having cut her braids for the sake of fashion (not, it seems, for religious reasons): “I know I’ve been unkind, Beylke, and I hope you will forgive me; but just look in the mirror and tell me if you don’t look like a pigeon whose wings were severed. Who cares about fashionable hairdos? It’s painful for me to know that now your glorious golden braids lie in a drawer like corpses.”
Other tunes and melodic fragments that Hoffman has combined with these and interpolated passim are his own inventions, such as the principal melody in the second movement, “Sabbath Queen.”
The melodies are interwoven with original melodic material and presented in the context of what the composer has called a “compact concerto.” There are frequent allusions to the sounds, clichés, and inflections of klezmorim (Jewish instrumental or band musicians) in traditional Jewish wedding bands of eastern Europe, but the melodic material is expanded and developed substantially beyond the confines of those tunes. “And this is where the self-portrait aspect emerges,” Hoffman has written. "I allowed Gebirtig’s melodies in this case to work their magic on my imagination—to help me dream about what a ‘klezmer cello concerto’ might have been like."
Self-Portrait with Gebirtig was written in 1998 for the composer’s brother, cellist Gary Hoffman, who played at its premiere at Queens College in New York that same year. Since then it has been heard in Paris, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Cincinnati, Tel Aviv, San José (Costa Rica), and Kronberg, Germany. “It is an ebullient work with a spellbinding middle movement,” wrote Janelle Gelfand in a review for the Cincinnati Enquirer, “and its Jewish spirit is captured without resorting to cliché … the slow movement mimicked east European Yiddish vocal music with throbs, slides, and glissandos, and soon moved into an infectious dance with moments of klezmer-like orchestration.” The enthusiasm was shared by Mary Ellen Hutton, the reviewer for the Cincinnati Post, who wrote that the piece projects “the reality of suffering and the wisdom of joy.” In the work, she wrote, Hoffman had “proved a gifted instrumental colorist counterpoising extremes of pitch, isolating single strands for emphasis and applying mallet percussion for spice.”
Publisher: Onibatan Music
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