CEWM's US Debut of Kohelet by Israeli Composer Andre Hajdu

By Albert Stern / BJV Editor

GREAT BARRINGTON – It’s one of those perfect early August days we get around here – temperate and breezy, flowers everywhere in full bloom, and long hours of daylight in which to enjoy it all - but cellist Yehuda Hanani is talking about a topic those of us in the Berkshires really don’t want to hear about during the waning weeks of summer.


Hanani is describing his upcoming project, Kohelet, which inaugurates the Close Encounters With Music’s 2019/20 season on October 27 at The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Inspired the Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet is a 12-movement work for four cellos and a narrator composed by Andre Hajdu (1932-2016), a Hungarian-born Israeli composer, ethnomusicologist, and teacher who was a central figure in Israel’s contemporary classical music scene in the late 20th century.

For Hanani, Hajdu’s somber work evokes autumn and Sukkot, the harvest festival during which the Kohelet is read in synagogues. The message of the megillah (scroll) about the vanity of earthly endeavor is largely bleak, written in the form of a meditation by the philosopher-king Kohelet (King Solomon, according to some traditions) about the fleeting nature of life and the ways wisdom can nonetheless give it meaning.

“This work could not be more appropriate for the season,” he says. “Summer’s over, and it’s a time for introspection, for looking inside rather than going out.” For Hanani, the Book of Kohelet “is all about enigmas, about how one goes through life finding the benefits of opposites and in uncertainty.”

It’s a spiritually and philosophically confounding work, and Hanani says that Hajdu obsessed over his Kohelet for years. It was presented in Germany, Holland, France, and Israel, and “every time it was performed, [Hajdu] changed it,” he says. The Close Encounters With Music performance will be the work’s United States premiere and for it, Hanani contacted the composer’s archive in Jerusalem to obtain all the versions collected there. “I created my own nusach (style)” for the piece, explains Hanani. “I took the liberty of choosing what I thought was best.” (Aptly, on Hajdu’s Wikipedia page Kohelet is the only work that is undated, suggesting the composer was never quite done with it.)

Hajdu was a prolific composer who composed many Jewish-themed works, particularly after he moved to Israel in the 1960s. Born in Hungary, he studied music in Budapest and conducted research into the gypsy music in the Balkans. During the abortive Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Hajdu fled the Iron Curtain and relocated to Paris, where he studied music with Milhaud and Messiaen. He also befriended the playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, who influenced his worldview and aesthetic. After making Aliyah, he taught at Tel Aviv University and Bar Ilan University, and developed an innovative method of teaching music that he implemented at the Israel Arts & Science Academy in Jerusalem. As a scholar, he studied and wrote about Jewish musical styles such as klezmer and Hasidic incantation, and composed works on Jewish themes and folklore. In 1997, he was awarded the Israel Prize, for music.

As Hajdu aged, he became increasingly Orthodox in his Jewish practice, and his later compositions reflect his deep interest in abstract Jewish thought. Musically, Kohelet is a modernist composition, with an uncommon orchestration for four cellos. It’s an interesting piece to play, says Hanani, in part because of the composer’s “fresh use of the sonority of four cellos playing from the bass to violin registers,” and also because of the way the musicians have to interact with the narrator’s dramatic reading of passages from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Hanani enlisted actor Sam Waterson to be the narrator, although it’s probably more accurate to say that he’ll be playing the “role” of the philosopher-king Kohelet, telling the story in 12 movements that correspond to the 12 chapters of Ecclesiastes. The melding of dramatic narration and music will be an interesting challenge for both the actor and the cellists, says Hanani, who will have to listen for cues from each other as the piece unfolds. “Sometimes the first cello accompanies the narrator, sometimes the first cello has a dialogue with the narrator, sometimes the narration alternates with the music, and sometimes the quartet plays freely under the narration. We have to adjust our speed so we can all start together and finish together.”

Hanani says that he is presenting Hajdu’s Kohelet as a hybrid performance of theater and chamber music. When we spoke, he had not started rehearsals with Waterson, but that the actor was involved in selecting the New King James Version Bible as the translation of Ecclesiastes they will use.

Hanani points out that Ecclesiastes is among the books of the Tanach that have permeated the general culture most – from the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to book titles like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to aphorisms like “There is nothing new under the sun.”

But Hanani even managed to stump Google with his observation that the “eyes in his head” lyric from the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” is also a riff on Ecclesiastes – specifically Chapter2: Verse 14, “The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness.” According to the website Beatlesbible.com, Paul McCartney composed the song on the piano at his father's house in Liverpool in 1967, and has said “I think I was writing about someone like Maharishi” Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru whom the Beatles had famously visited that year. None of the websites that came up when I googled “fool on the hill + ecclesisates” made the connection, which was surprising given the vast number of Beatles obsessives that are out there.

So apparently there is something new under the sun, after all.

Andre Hajdu’s Kohelet will receive its American premiere on October 27 at Close Encounters With Music, with Sam Waterston, narrator, and Yehuda Hanani, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, Michael Nicolas, Do Yeon Kim on cello. The 6 p.m. performance will be at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle Street in Great Barrington. For more information, visit www.cewm.org or call (800) 843-0778.