Composer Lilia Valitova has no trouble naming her favorite music: Jewish folk melodies. Which is surprising, considering she descended from Muslim Tatars, and grew up in the former Soviet Union, where nary a mention was made of Jews and anti-Semitism was rampant.
Listen to Lilia Valitova’s song “Sleep My Child (Shluf Mein Kind)”:
Valitova has loved Jewish folk melodies since she was a young piano student in her Russian hometown of Ufa and, later, at a Moscow conservatory. Now living in the East Bay and married to a native Israeli, Valitova has released her debut CD, “Yearning.” All 30 compositions are based on Jewish melodies.
Valitova, 48, will perform her music at a Tuesday, June 16 concert at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay in Berkeley.
Her compositions, all short pieces for solo piano, bring to mind the preludes of Chopin or the “Scenes from Childhood” by Schu-mann. Yet all have Yiddish titles: “Shluf Mein Kind,” “Freylech Zayn” and “Drei Yingelach,” to name a few.
Why would a non-Jewish musician trained in modern composition gravitate toward the music of a people she had not known?
“I don’t like avant-garde music,” Valitova says. “It was torture when the professors were demanding it. I needed good music, reviving folk melodies. They are eternal. They never become old fashioned. Jewish music made such an impression, such a deep spiritual impact.”
She says her first exposure to Jewish music came in childhood, through the folk-influenced work of Dmitri Shost-akovich. She didn’t understand the origins of those melodies, but she knew they moved her. As a student at the conservatory, her favorite teacher was dismissed for being Jewish, but he had by then made his mark on her musical direction.
The other two game-changers for her were discovering a compendium of Jewish folk melodies and, of all things, seeing the film “Schindler’s List.”
“I had heard something about Jews persecuted during the war,” she says of her inadequate Soviet education. “Soviets were showing concentration camps as Polish. They never said Jewish. ‘Schindler’s List’ showed these were Jews. I was shocked. I wanted to express this hard impression of the Holocaust.”
That inspired her to compose music based on Jewish melodies. But she didn’t stop there.
“I didn’t know anything about Jewish culture, so I went to the library at the [Ufa] JCC,” she recalls. “The head of the community accepted me. I visited every Friday. I was allowed to use the library, and I played my first pieces there.”
Listen to Lilia Valitova’s song “Sabbath (Shabbes Zol Zayn)”:
Valitova made a living teaching music in Ufa. A divorce left her raising her son, Artur, as a single mother. But love came back to her life in 2001 through JDate, the Jewish online dating service, where she met Moshe Shafrir, an Israeli-born architect living in the Bay Area. Not long after they met, he proposed marriage, and she moved to the area in 2002.
They now live in Albany and maintain a Jewish home. They belong to the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley, though Valitova is of the Bahai faith.
With the release of her debut CD, Valitova hopes to do more recording and performing in the years ahead. And though her musical interests span everything from French impressionism to classical Chinese, she says Jewish music will always come first.
“Wandering people got influenced from all over,” Valitova says of the Jewish people. “This is where the richness began.”
Lilia Valitova performs 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 16 at the JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Information: (510) 710-4444 or www.valitova.com.
“Yearnings” by Lilia Valitova, is available on CD.