A sheyn gezunt: the beautiful sound of Yiddish art songs
By Deb Silverthorn
Brotherhood never looked, never sounded as good as it will when Tsvey Brider (Two Brothers, translated from Yiddish) performs Sunday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. at Congregation Shearith Israel’s Small-Waldman-Cohen 2019-2020 Signature Series’ East to West concert.
“People who sit in front of me in shul turn to hear my voice and you can tell they’re surprised by who they see. I used my performer’s tools to learn Hebrew pronunciations, to assimilate the sounds comprehensively and to learn the song of the prayers,” said Anthony (Mordechai Tzvi) Russell, a Fort Worth native with family roots in the historic African American Church of Christ.
“There are ministers in my family, and 150 years of family lore connected in the church. Now, I am a vocalist, composer and arranger specializing in Yiddish art and folk songs, chazzones and Chasidic niggunim,” he said. “My first ‘Jewish music’ was shul music. I loved it first almost 20 years ago, and I love it now.”
Russell’s “brother from another mother” in Tsvey Brider, Dmitri Gaskin, won the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award for a contemporary classical composition; he makes his accordion sound like many instruments. He brings to performance the virtuoso harmonica playing of the American South, the organ of cantorial recordings of ages past as well the blues-inflected organ of gospel.
Together, Tsvey Brider has been featured in Berlin’s Radical Jewish Culture Festival, toured Poland and performed for culture, throughout the United States. The two won Mexico City’s 2017 Concurso Internacional de Canciones en Idish, the Der Yidisher Idol–The Yiddish Idol.
When he was a child, Russell and his family moved into a home that had stacks of video tapes. He played “Amadeus” and, combined with his mother’s love — and often performances of Handel’s Messiah — was hooked on classical music and then opera. A lifetime later Russell’s professional operatic debut was in Philip Glass’ “Appomattox” with the San Francisco Opera Company.
“There was always a strong emphasis on Biblical literacy and the formative narratives of my family were steeped in Judaism. By the time I fell in love with a Jew, and Judaism, I had more than a working knowledge of the Torah,” said Russell, who converted in 2010. “It was a matter of making good on the informative text and my wanting to solidify the connection I’d always felt with the Jewish Bible.
“As an opera performer, part of my job was acting, part was learning lines and melodies quickly,” said the singer, who is married to Rabbi Michael Rothbaum. The couple lives in Massachusetts. Russell has traveled in Canada, Europe, Israel, the U.K. and around the U.S.
Russell decided he wanted less acting, more the chance to “be myself through music,” he says. People connected to the depth and heart they heard in his music and so he began studying Yiddish art songs, which, unexpectedly, reminded him of the spirituals of his family.
Russell, recorded his debut album, “Convergence,” with the klezmer trio Veretski Pass. The album allowed him to celebrate the musical sounds of the early blues, klezmer, fiddle, synagogue tunes and contemporary classical.
Through his “Written in Breath” series, Russell leads discussions comparing and contrasting Tehillim, Nevi’im and Talmud with Yiddish texts from songs performed.
Introduced to the music of Yiddish performer Sidor Belarsky, Russell continues the late singer’s legacy, sharing the richness of Ashkenazic Jewish culture and song to the generations.
“I bring two kinds of music into conversation together. It’s an opportunity to make music that makes sense and embodies all parts of me simultaneously,” said Russell. “Being a performer of Jewish music allows me to connect with the audience and to share what enriches my life, and I hope theirs too.”
For details about Congregation Shearith Israel’s Small-Waldman-Cohen East to West concert, visit tinyurl.com/CSI-EAST-TO-WEST.