It was a big day January 16 in Scheuer Chapel at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Clifton. A new chamber group, the Constella Trio -- violinist Tatiana Berman, violist Yael Senamaud and cellist Ilya Finkelsteyn -- made its debut. There was a world premiere, a new music series was inaugurated, and most of all, an overflow crowd celebrated the 88th birthday of composer/HUC Director of Liturgical Arts (emeritus) Bonia Shur.
Born in Latvia, Shur escaped the Nazi invasion, fought in the Russian army in World War II and lived in a kibbutz in Israel before immigrating to the U.S. in 1960. He settled in Cincinnati when he took up his post at HUC in 1974. He and his wife and collaborator, choreographer Fanchon Shur, were warmly greeted by the Scheuer Chapel crowd.
Violist Senamaud opened with Shur’s “Kol Nidre,” a setting of the traditional Jewish prayer for Yom Kippur. It is a searching, soulful work from the playbook of Johann Sebastian Bach, with daunting multiple stops for the viola, some in high positions on the instrument. The room was hushed as Senamaud applied her plush tone to its keening lines, earning a warm ovation from the crowd and a kiss on the hand from Shur.
There was an interpolation on the program occasioned by the Cincinnati Pops matinee concert downtown at Music Hall, which delayed Finkelsteyn’s arrival at Scheuer (he is principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestras). No problem. Berman and Senamaud filled in with the Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major by Mozart – and very handily, too, for an on-the-spot command performance. Their blend was delicious, Berman playing on a 1770 Johannes Gagliano violin on loan from Jules Azzi. There was plenty of energy and propulsion in the outer movements and a lovely, arioso-like slow movement.
Highlight of the program was Czech composer Gideon Klein’s String Trio, written in 1944, when Klein was in charge of musical activities at Terezin concentration camp. It is an amazing work, a beacon amid the darkness, penned just two weeks before he was deported for Auschwitz at the age of 26.
A cheerful opening movement, capped by a spreading cello chord gave way to a set of variations on a Moravian tune, the heart of the work and its longest movement. Lest anyone get too introspective, however, the trio closes with a short, sassy finale, a rustic dance announced with stamina by Berman.
For reasons of time, the Trio closed with the final movement of Erno Dohnanyi’s Serenade, Op. 10, rather than the complete work. It is upbeat music -- literally upbeat, at the beginning, where scampering sixteenth notes follow a declamatory chord. It was fun to follow along and in particular, to hear Finkelsteyn set up Berman’s restatement of the gutsy Hungarian theme high on her violin’s lowest string.
The concert was preceded by a tribute to Shur, including a slide show, presentation of HUC’s Lifetime Achievement Award by Dean Ken Ehrlich and a proclamation from the faculty by faculty chair Richard Sarason.