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"Sometimes, the way he plays with the sound of a single note has enough emotional sustenance in it to launch a half-dozen distinct feelings in quick succession." --The Philadelphia Inquirer

"The cellist’s variable tone ... sometimes seems almost vocal in its ability to morph into different timbres."
--The Philadelphia Inquirer

"transcendentally gorgeous"
--Manhattan User's Guide

"Grabois' tone is rich, then pungent and penetrating." --Audiophilia

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--The Glens Falls Post-Star

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Reviews

Reviews > The New York Times




 

May 4, 2001

Makor: Many-Colored Coat of Arts

By ALLAN KOZINN

To the degree that anything can be called usual at Makor, the eclectic cultural center on West 67th Street in Manhattan, the atmosphere in its basement cafe on a recent Sunday evening was uncharacteristically staid. Instead of the jazz, Latin, folk or Israeli pop musicians who pack nearly 250 people into the room, Adam Grabois, a young cellist, and John Nauman, a pianist, were playing works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Glazunov, Glinka and Rachmaninoff for an audience of about 60. And instead of milling around, dancing, chatting up potential dates or placing food and drink orders, listeners were quietly focused on the stage, some unobtrusively picking at the food on their tables, but most concentrating as if they were in a concert hall rather than a club.

The concert was an installment of what Makor (pronounced muh-KOHR) calls its Classical Cafe, which it has offered about once a month for the past year and plans to continue. Earlier that day, students from the Manhattan School of Music had played at the club's weekly Jazz Brunch, and elsewhere in its five-story brownstone, there were classes in Middle Eastern dumbek drumming, meetings of Makor's Hebrew and French clubs (its Spanish club met on a different day), a workshop on Jewish prayer and a performance by Vered Hankin and Howard Schwarz, who read folk tales steeped in Jewish mysticism.

The previous night, Makor had presented its weekly Groove evening, which can be anything from D.J.'s to live music with salsa or swing bands. This particular week, the attraction was Fabio Morgera's Jungle Jazz, a group that offers an updated blend of jazz and funk. Other nights, Makor offers films in its 72-seat screening room, as well as writing and poetry workshops, yoga classes, book groups and panel discussions on public affairs. In fact, as busy as Saturday nights and Sundays are at Makor, the weekend is in some ways its slowest time, mainly because, as a Jewish organization under rabbinical oversight, it observes the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to an hour past sundown on Saturday.

That said, Makor does have frequent Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, including entertainment that does not violate Sabbath prohibitions against, for example, using electricity: choral groups that sing without instrumental accompaniment or amplification, or comedians and speakers who, similarly, do not use microphones.

In a way, Makor — the word means source in Hebrew — has been straddling two worlds with considerable success since it opened in October 1999.

On the one hand, it aspires to be a cultural center like any other: a place where one can hear both established and promising musicians, see films that normally play in art houses (a Peter Greenaway series, for instance, was presented at Makor as part of the Lincoln Center Festival last year) and take classes in a wide variety of subjects. And indeed, the audiences at the events I've attended — ranging from concerts by the folk singer Richie Havens and the swing band Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers to a film about Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, and Mr. Grabois's cello recital — were as diverse as any.

On the other hand, Makor's core mission is Jewish education. Since Judaism does not proselytize, Makor's founders, both heads of Jewish outreach organizations — Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the president of the Partnership for Jewish Life, and Michael Steinhardt, a philanthropist who is the chairman of the Jewish Life Network — hoped mainly to reach what demographic studies have identified as a large Jewish population of 20- and 30-somethings who have no particular connection with the Jewish community. Here, Makor's approach is fairly low-key: the idea is that unaffiliated Jewish people attending its events might leaf through the monthly calendar and decide to explore their roots by taking a class.

"We certainly, as an institution, believe that it's a good thing for Jewish people to discover more about what it means to be Jewish," said Rabbi David Gedzelman, 41, who has been involved with Makor since 1995, when it was in the planning stages, and who is its creative and rabbinic director. "We think it's a good thing if non-Jews discover more as well. Non-Jews take classes here on Judaism. That's O.K. We really are committed to including the open society. I think people who come here feel that this is a nonjudgmental place."

"We determined very early on that we were going to have a strong arts and entertainment emphasis, and that we would juxtapose the arts with the possibilities of Jewish exploration, education and connection," he continued. "And we knew that to do that, we would have to break through whatever preconceptions people might have of a Jewish context. This had to be interesting, artistic, creative, hip and cool."

Collaborating with other institutions is one way Makor has established its credentials.

"The Peter Greenaway film series we did last summer with the Lincoln Center Festival is a case in point," Rabbi Gedzelman said. "It was an amazing thing for us. There's nothing Jewish about Peter Greenaway and his films. Ken Sherman, who directs our film series, made the decisions about which we would show. I've seen a lot of them; to me, it's all weird, but they're always interesting. And it's important to us to offer them and to work in partnerships with serious cultural arts specialists in the city."

At first glance, Makor could be mistaken for a university student center. Walking in from the street, one passes a notice about keeping the noise down when entering and leaving the building (a remnant of an early dispute with the neighbors, who complained that patrons were too boisterous) and steps into a hallway with a ticket sales desk to the right and a glass-walled lounge to the left.

Art Shows and a Cafe

One leg of the L-shaped lounge offers modest photography and art exhibitions, as well as a bank of television monitors. On recent visits, two were tuned to Makor's Web site, www.makor.org. A third offered sporting events, with the sound off. The other leg is a reading room, with one wall devoted to magazines (heavy on literary, art and computer titles) and another to books (a collection that ranges from volumes on Jewish mysticism to Hunter S. Thompson's "Proud Highway").

Across from the lounge, a flight of stairs leads to the second floor, which includes classrooms and Makor's screening room; another descends to the cafe, actually two rooms connected by a bar. A sliding door between them gives Makor the option of splitting the space in two and separating the restaurant from the larger room that is the main theater. For events likely to draw large crowds, however, the sliding door is opened. Food and drinks are available in both rooms: the menu is kosher dairy and vegetarian.

The theater itself is fairly flexible, with booths along the side walls, a low rectangular stage large enough for a decent-size swing band at the front, and tables of various sizes on the floor. When an event seems to call for dancing — as the recent Lavay Smith concert did, and the Saturday night D.J. evenings do — the tables are removed.

"Our model for the room was Fez," Rabbi Gedzelman said, referring to the jazz club under the Time Cafe on Lafayette Street in the East Village, "because it's a square room with a low ceiling. And it was important to us to create that context in the building, and to offer a space that encourages artistic innovation. It's not just that it's an entry point — that people might come for the music and eventually go upstairs for something else. That's a piece of it. But it's also that if these things happen in the same place, they'll bleed into each other. The artistic innovation, the bubbling of creativity that happens downstairs in the cafe, is going to inform the intellectual, spiritual and religious exploration that's going on upstairs."

A Bond With the Y

Makor might be best described as a hybrid of Fez (or, on some nights, the Bottom Line) and the 92nd Street Y, another Jewish institution that offers both an expansive arts program and more focused classes. Actually, Makor is now a part of the Y. Mr. Steinhardt, who provided the money to get Makor off the ground — $11 million to buy and renovate the property, built in 1904 as a home for elderly Swiss immigrants — gave the center to the Y as a gift in February. (He is also on the Y's board.) The acquisition, in which Makor became the Makor-Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y, immediately raised fears that the Y would impose its own more conventional institutional style on Makor. But both Rabbi Gedzelman and Helaine Geismar Katz, the Y's associate executive director, say Makor will retain its autonomy.

"We've been in awe of what they've been able to do in less than a year and a half," Ms. Katz said of Makor's arts programming. "I think there will be a really good synergy between us. The cultures are very different. We have 127 years of tradition; they're a startup. They'll give a boost of energy and an edge to our thinking, and we'll offer what comes from having been around for a long time. And the fact that we have different kinds of spaces will benefit us both."

In fact, the first planned collaborations have Makor taking over the Y rather than the reverse: in December, Makor is to present concerts by the Israeli pop singers Chava Albertstein and David Broza in the Y's concert hall, which seats 917, nearly three times what Makor itself can accommodate.

Although Rabbi Gedzelman oversees both the arts and education offerings at Makor, which has an annual budget of $3.4 million, his staff of 27 includes directors for its music, film and literary programs. Except for those at the Classical Cafe, the music offerings are directed by Brice Rosenbloom, who came to Makor in June 1999, after working at Central Park Summerstage and the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

"The idea from the beginning was to be very diverse, very broad in scope and mining all the genres," he said. "And at first, it was very tough to attract both artists and audiences. Jazz, especially, is a tough animal: it's hard to break into the scene with all the major clubs downtown. So we may do a bit less jazz now than at the start. We seem to have more success with singer-songwriters and the New York contemporary folk scene. A lot of the artists you hear on WFUV, you can hear here," he said, referring to the 1960's-ish radio station at Fordham University, which has collaborated with Makor on some programming.

Unconventionally Classical

Makor's other musical strength is, naturally, contemporary Jewish pop music, a varied category that ranges from the almost Brazilian-sounding music of the Israeli singer and guitarist David Broza to the hybrid jazz and klezmer experiments of groups like the Klezmatics and soloists like the guitarist Marc Ribot, the keyboardist Anthony Coleman and the trumpeter Frank London, all of whom have performed at Makor.

The Classical Cafe concerts are more of an experiment. They are on Sunday evenings at 8, and although the cafe's setup is the same as it would be for a folk or jazz concert — listeners can eat during the show — no food or drink orders are taken while the performers are onstage.

"Before we opened, I spoke with a number of people in the classical music world about putting classical music in a cafe setting, and I was rebuffed," Rabbi Gedzelman said. "I was told that no serious musician would play in such a setting, that it's not respectful. So we did one concert upstairs, and nobody came. I thought, boy, the classical music world is missing an opportunity to play to young adults with disposable income. I have a subscription to the New York Philharmonic, and I don't see many people under 60."

The notion of presenting classical concert music in a cafe is actually not so outrageous. Much of the Baroque chamber repertory now performed in more formal settings was created under exactly those circumstances. And in the mid-1970's, the pianist Peter Serkin and his chamber group Tashi made their names by giving a dressed-down performance of Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" at the Bottom Line. Rabbi Gedzelman, undeterred by his first attempts, engaged a guest curator, Pamela Goldberg, to present concerts one Sunday evening every month.

"I had been wanting to do something like this for a long time," said Ms. Goldberg, a pianist who studied at the Manhattan School of Music, "because I believe that classical music should be more accessible and more exciting to people who aren't already involved with it. I started by calling musicians I knew who were engaging performers, and we worked out a format in which I would introduce the musicians and the works, and they play for 45 minutes. I was kind of skeptical at first about the idea of people eating while they were listening. But the audiences have been very quiet and respectful."

Sounding New Notes

They may also be in for some surprises. The next of Ms. Goldberg's concerts is a solo cello recital by Darrett Adkins, a member of the Flux Quartet, on May 20. Mr. Adkins is playing a Bach Suite and a piece by Piatti, but most of his program is devoted to contemporary works by Osvaldo Golijov, Morton Feldman and Kenji Bunch.

"My experience with younger audiences is that people who don't listen to a lot of classical music have preconceptions about it," said Mr. Adkins, who also played at Makor in October. "They think that it's dead, old, stuck, difficult and overly long. So one of the things I've done on this program is include pieces that are no more than six or seven minutes long. Even the Bach: it's a 20-minute suite, but it's in six movements. But those small doses are stylistically distinct. Four minutes of Feldman creates a particular sound world, enough to get people to say, `I want to hear more of that.' And the Kenji Bunch piece draws on 1970's rock guitar solos. People who listen to Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton will find something familiar in it."

 

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