A Blessing on the Moon offers a unique blend of folk cultures
The initial spark for A Blessing on the Moon—which receives its world premiere at the Chutzpah Festival this weekend—happened a decade ago when composer and folk musician Andy Teirstein walked into a bookshop in New York and saw a novel of that title. Intrigued, he read the first few pages—and he was hooked.
“I’m a sucker for journey stories,” says Teirstein on the line from New York, where he’s rehearsing the theatre and live-music show. “And here you’ve got two guys, who are both dead, wandering across a landscape. Everyone is in a suspended state between life and death.”
The 1997 novel, set in the Second World War, is the story of Chaim Skibelski, a Polish Jew shot by the Germans, and his rabbi, who’s become a crow. “It’s very metaphysical, yet rooted in the culture of postwar Poland and the Jewish search for an afterlife. Both fascinated me, and I thought: this can be very musical. So I started to work with it.”
Teirstein wrote to the publishers, and the author Joseph Skibell (the real Chaim was his grandfather) got in touch and asked to hear some of the music already written. “He became interested and I asked if he would be the librettist because I found it very difficult to translate his beautiful writing into something else,” says Teirstein. “He was already on his next novel and didn’t want to go back. For some years I tried to find someone else and to write it myself, but without success—and so it was on the back burner a long time. Then Joseph decided to write the libretto with me. We holed up in my cabin in upstate New York in the summer of 2010 and got it done over a couple of weeks.”
The two men hit it off, and the libretto quickly flowed. Teirstein has a fine touch for writing music with actors and dancers in mind. In the early ’80s he took the inaugural New York University Musical Theater Program and among his teachers were Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It shows. Teirstein’s work is multifaceted, frequently shifting in tone and texture, and although very modern in feel, it’s based on a range of traditional music and cultures. He learned fiddle tunes in Irish pubs, studied with the Hopi and Cheyenne nations, performed as a musical clown in a Mexican circus, and travelled to Eastern Europe to collect the old songs and tunes.
Last year a choreographer friend recommended the award-winning Warsaw Village Band to him. Its members also fuse traditional and contemporary sounds, with a unique instrumentation: frame drums, hurdy-gurdy, turntables and laptop, cymbalom (hammered dulcimer), the double-headed bęben drum, regular fiddle, and suka—a six-stringed old Polish fiddle that’s fretted with the fingernails.
“Once we decided to involve the WVB the challenge for me has been to make music that still includes their sound,” he explains. “It’s all of my composition, except certain places where we’re able to include their arrangements of traditional material. They’ve been playing music they’re not used to, and our singers are being asked to sing in a style they’re not used to, but they’re so excited about the sound of the [WVB] women’s voices, so wild and unbridled. The story is set in Poland, and having a Polish band and mixing their sound with our sound is fantastic.”
Skibell will also be in Vancouver for the premiere. A Blessing on the Moon’s unique blend of folk cultures, old and new, may help Chaim find a happy afterlife in his homeland.
A Blessing on the Moon is at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre from Saturday to Monday (February 11 to 13), as part of the 2012 Chutzpah Festival.