Jewish Spin On A Classic Tale
"Sound. and Spirit's" Ellen Kushner revisits Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" in story and song.
"I did music that related thematically
to. the Jewish holidays, but not specifi-
cally Jewish music," she says, recalling
I is that time of year again.
her programs that combined African-
American slave songs with internation-
Time for tinsel, lights and
al songs about Moses and other motifs
other aspects of the Christmas
of the Exodus.
season that make many Jews
"I felt there was something missing
feel, well, " Nutcracker-ed" out.
in Jewish holiday radio programming
Enter radio host, award-winning
and wanted to fill that gap," Kushner
author and champion of Jewish music
and culture Ellen Kushner.
She took her idea to Public Radio
Together with the award-winning,
International who, as the providers of
Boston-based klezmer orchestra Shirim
such notable programs as A Prairie
and Ryko Records, Kushner has just
released The Golden Dreydl, a live radio
Home Companion and Marketplace,
found Kushner's proposal intriguing.
play based upon the holiday classic The
Nutcracker — but with a Jewish twist.
"PRI asked me to make my specials
"I had always been a fan of
into a weekly series," Kushner recalls.
"They wanted me to take my insights
Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite,"
into human spiritual need and corn-
Kushner explains. "So when I was
bine them with world music and folk-
asked to prepare a musical program
with Shirim in spring 2000 for an arts
lore and turn it all into a coherent set."
As host of the resulting program,
festival at Northeastern University [in
Sound er Spirit, Kushner has continued
Boston], I welcomed it as a great
Ellen Kushner and the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra perform "The Golden Dreydl":
to explore and expound upon the
Standing, left to right, David Harris, Michael McLaughlin, Ellen Kush ner, Jim
importance of international music and
The result was The Golden Dreydl.
"When you think about it," Kushner Gray; kneeling, left to right, Pete Fitzpatrick, Glenn Dickson, Eric Rose nthal.
Throughout it all, she has been sure
suggests, "Tchaikovsky was a world-
she says. "I love working with the various cultures
music guy. There are many cultures represented in
to bring her own culture to the mix.
and trying to draw commonalities and stories from
"It is rare for me to devote the whole hour to one
the original suite, from Chinese to French to
religion or culture," she says, suggesting that the
Her interest in her cultural heritage goes back
Since much of the Russian sound prevalent in
strength of the show comes from its ability to corn-
much further, however.
Tchaikovsky's,original comes from the same tradition
"I've been on public radio since 1987," says
as klezmer, if not from klezmer itself, Kushner further
"However, I am most often able to work Judaism
Kushner, a lifelong music fan who started as an
in somewhere every week, no matter how tangential-
suggests that officially klezmer-izing The Nutcracker is
overnight host on WGBH in Boston. "I started
not so much sacrilegious as a natural progression.
"It's almost like changing it back to its own roots," doing a classical music show, but the
huge music library at WGBH
she says. 'And that is why it does not sound
Focus On Holidays
allowed me to include other genres."
Among the early segues Kushner
Kushner's shows on Yom Kippur —
Though Kushner admits laughing out loud the
incorporated were combining
the stories of Jonah and the Akedah
first time she heard the klezmer treatment, she
Vaughan Williams' variations on
(the binding of Isaac) — have proven
admits the music inspired and helped her to form
English folk songs with the source
the contemporary version of the story.
to be among her most popular.
songs, and introducing her audience
"These shows come back every year
"It was strange to hear 'Dance of the Sugarplum
to the Balinese gamelan that inspired
at the same time," she says, "Many
Fairies' done on the tuba," she recalls, laughing still,
contemporary composer Lou
people tell me it is as much a part of
"but especially as people get sick of the traditional
score, it is kind of a relief to hear a fresh take on it."
their holidays as going to services."
"The show stayed [close] to its
One holiday that was yet to be
classical roots," Kushner says, "but the changes
explored, however, was Chanukah.
World Music Host
worked well, too."
"I wanted to give Jewish children and all music
So well, in fact, that WGBH soon gave Kushner a
As host of Sound and Spirit, the internationally
lovers a new holiday story," says Kushner of The
second time slot for a weekly world music show.
Golden Dreydl, which debuted on radio in
broadcast radio program that features music from all
"That helped me learn even more about world
December 2000. "I also wanted an opportunity to
over the world, Kushner has been dealing with the
music," she recalls. "It was perfect for me because it
world of world music (and Jewish music in particu-
create a new world of music and fantasy."
let me play stuff I knew about and stuff I didn't
Instead of young Clara being given the titular toy
lar) since 1996.
soldier by a mysterious uncle, Kushner's heroine Sara
"It's been a wonderfully enriching opportunity,"
In 1992, Kushner began to create a series of spe-
receives the titular dreidel from her Aunt Miriam,
Matthew Robinson is a Massachusetts-based freelance cials specifically concerned with the music of her
who has suddenly arrived from an international trip
that included a crossing of the Red Sea.
MATTHEW S. ROBINSON
Special to the Jewish News