Tuesday, June 16, 2009


The most formal of "living rooms" was a lot less formal than this picture of the Stern auditorium of Carnegie Hall would have you believe. Picture a stage filled with microphones, instruments (and, of course, the piano) where a really wonderful birthday bash was about to begin. A birthday bash to honor what one can probably truly refer to as "a man for all seasons". Theodore Bikel. And a real party it was.

From the moment David Amram came out with his various instruments the party was off and running. While there is a list of artists too long to go into detail about, suffice it to say all had a connection to Theo Bikel---be it drama, music, dance, or his causes for justice, freedom, and equal rights.

The first half of the program had the honoree sitting in a box in the center of the hall with some of his celebrated guests--including Chita Rivera while the entertainment started with accolades to him from the likes of Beyond The Pale, the actress (we could say actor) Patricia Connolly, and a host of others. Alan Alda was a truly gracious interlocutor and read some wonderful messages sent for the occasion from various people ending with a message from Michael Bloomberg---but, as Mr. Alda shook the note to see---no key to the city.

A few people I do want to mention in a bit more detail in the first half of the program and also comment that they all presented just one piece --or 2 if they were short ones.

THE KLEZMATICS, as always, brought the house down with 2 pieces; the second of which came from their Wonder Wheel album.

SUSAN WERNER, who many of you have heard on Traditions and recently saw at the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music club, did a wonderful turn using her guitar--though I admit I had hoped to see her at that Carnegie grand piano.

PETER/PAUL/NO MARY were a wonderful few moments that really got the audience involved with two pieces---the first a wonderful piece about not making fun of people who might be"different" and the second was Puff The Magic Dragon. A few comments about that interlude which was both positive, negative and unnecessary. On a positive note the first piece was perfect for the demographic of the audience--more about the demograpic later--the second, "Puff", also involved the audience and was wonderfully received. Mr. Yarrow's comments about Mary were, I felt, totally unnecessary. As he said himself,"...I am probably saying more than I should.." Right he certainly was. I am sure we are all happy that she --as he said--" is cancer free" but I do not know that he needed to describe her chemotherapy and its side effects which prevented her appearance. Some folks just cannot -- I will leave the last comment out. Noel Paul Stookey was, as usual, a quiet, talented, class act.

There were more great people that came out in the first half---including Judy Kaye, Michael Wex ( who did a brilliant parody/satirical country western piece) the author of Born To Kvetch amongst other that brought him a over the radar.

The second half of the program started with Theodore Bikel making a short and touching speech about the evening and the cause it was benefiting. He followed that with some amazing virtuosic pieces that included some solo work, some work with Shura Livpovsky, and also his wife Tamara Brooks on the piano.

It really turned into a birthday party at this point when Theo Bikel and Tamara Brooks brought out:

SARAH HOROWITZ, the brilliant violinist who, I thought was in her 20s from where I was sitting, but is in fact just 14 years old.

DAVID KRAKAUER, a clarinetist that totally tore the house down with his brilliant mastery of the instrument. Hard to describe what he did with it but, suffice it to say, he combines Jazz, Klezmer, and improv into a magical blend.

Next a wonderful ensemble presentation with the Klezmatics and others after which they all left the stage and left it to Tom Paxton who did two pieces that were known to some---but, as said earlier, given the demographic might not have been familiar to the audience. So, sing a long was out. Arlo Guthrie was next and got a rousing welcome (as did Tom Paxton). After his once piece---more later on that---

Finally the entire group came on stage for the grand finale (though I had hoped the audience would sing Happy Birthday) which was one of the most clever and touching things I have ever seen. It started out with Theo Bikel doing "Those Were The Days" in Yiddish and then it turned to English and many people had original verses to add that pertained to the birthday boy. All were clever but, frankly, I thought Tom Paxton's the funniest (I do not know if he wrote it)---about being in a bar in Greenwhich Village with Irish Revolutionary songs being sung and Bikel singing them in Yiddish. Shades of Saints and Tzadiks CD.

While I said I do not know if Tom Paxton wrote that it is because in the midst of the entire ensemble stood, I believe,Chris Wangro who seemed to be wonderfully conducting this finale. Perhaps he had a hand in the composition since the lyrics were on paper they sang from. The encore came as a wonderful solo piece of "If I Were A Rich Man" by Theo Bikel accompanied on the piano by Tamara Brooks. All on the stage left only for him and Tamara.

It was, by any measure, a wonderful and touching evening. A few thoughts about some of the moments:
The demographic was predominantly an older Jewish crowd which did appreciate Puff the Magic Dragon but seemed lost in the Arlo Guthrie selection---St. James Infirmary. Something I should think a performer would realize. The audience did seem to appreciate the Tom Paxton pieces but were not of the group or age that would sing along---as they did with Puff--or any of the other Yiddish themed pieces.

The entire evening was truly one that was meaningful to the honoree, adored by the audience, and the young artists and the older ones were a joy to behold. It was a wonderful thing that they all had a connection to Theo Bikel.

I was delighted and honored to have been in the hall and it is, truly, a hall that has memories that go through the ages---classical, folk, jazz, etc; The nations "parlor" if you will. The right place for this wonderful 85th birthday commemoration. How wonderful to see the eternal spirit of youth in this youngster at 85----as it is said---Kine Hora---you should live to 125.