Polish dance music from Veretski Pass. Middle Eastern guitar riffs from RebbeSoul. Jewish songs with a feminist perspective. A setting of “Avinu Malkeinu” for cantor, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion.
The free Jewish Music Series that starts Thursday, Aug. 31 at Sonoma State University will cover a range of sounds, from haunting Sephardic melodies to the get-up-and-dance klezmer music of Ashkenazi traditions.
The series, now in its third year, is part of a Survey of Jewish Musics class that features concerts on seven Thursday evenings during the fall semester. About 75 students attend each show, along with approximately 150 local music lovers from the Rohnert Park area.
“It’s the whole kitchen sink, it’s a survey of Jewish music across the world and across time,” said Josh Horowitz, a Berkeley accordionist and pianist who teaches the class in between gigs with local klezmer band Veretski Pass and other groups. “I try to get the kids to understand that any culture is an amalgamation of other cultures. No music develops in a vacuum.”
Horowitz said he starts his class with a quote from 20th-century musicologist Curt Sachs that Jewish music is “by Jews, for Jews, as Jews” — and then proceeds to attack the oversimplification of that definition.
At the end of last year’s class, Horowitz recalled, one student came up to him and said: “This has been an intense class, and I still don’t know what Jewish music is.”
Horowitz responded, “Then I’ve succeeded.” Only four of the 75 students in the class last year were Jewish, he said, and most were not music majors.
And that’s the whole point, said Brian Wilson, chair of Sonoma State’s department of music and director of the school’s Jewish Studies program.
“We get students in all majors, all across the gamut,” said Wilson, who created the Jewish Music Series. “One of the missions of the Jewish Studies program here in general is to inform students about Jewish culture, so the reach is pretty wide.”
Wilson and Horowitz come from very different Jewish and musical backgrounds.
Wilson grew up surrounded by the melodies of an Orthodox synagogue, but then discovered composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varese and jazz great Charles Mingus while studying composition at the New England Conservatory.
He calls his music Jewish avant garde. One of the concerts in the series features compositions by Wilson, including his setting of Avinu Malkeinu and a piece called “Ezra the Scribe Stood Upon a Pulpit” for violin, horn and piano.
“I’m a modern classical composer, but much of the music draws upon melodies from the liturgy,” said Wilson, now in his 17th year at Sonoma State. “Sometimes it’s very noticeable and sometimes it’s more subtle.”
Horowitz grew up in a secular household and was trained as a jazz pianist and composer. He learned klezmer while living in Austria for 17 years after moving there when he was 24.
The series opens with the six-member band Kugelplex, a popular Bay Area-based group that plays klezmer as well as Old World shtetl music.
Next up is singer-songwriter Sharon Goldman, on Sept. 14. Raised in New York in a Modern Orthodox home and now living in New Jersey, Goldman offers a song cycle that blends genres such as folk, pop and world music. Her website, sharongoldmanmusic.com, describes her latest album, Kol Isha (“A Woman’s Voice”), as a “song journey merging Jewish imagery, myth and memories with a modern, feminist perspective.”
RebbeSoul (aka Bruce Berger) performs on Sept. 28. A singer-songwriter and guitarist, the Los Angeles-based performer offers a fusion of Jewish roots and world music, rock and jazz.
Roz Barak, who served as cantor at San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El for 28 years and retired in the fall of 2015, sings on Oct. 19. Cantor Richard Kaplan takes the stage on Nov. 2. A singer-songwriter and pianist, Kaplan is also a teacher and cantor at Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.
Wilson’s avant garde music will be sung by Jeremiah Lockwood (also known for his band The Sway Machinery) on Nov. 16.
Veretski Pass is scheduled to give the final performance in the series, on Nov. 30. The Bay Area-based trio will play pieces from their 2015 album, “Poyln, A Gilgul.”
All performances are on Thursdays, starting at 6:30 p.m. in Schroeder Hall on the SSU campus.