Life is a Cabaret

By June 1, 2016Interviews-Leeds

Ilya Levinson (third from right) and Phil Bohlman (third from left) with (L to R) Frank Caruso, jazz pianist and accordionist, Julia Bentley, a contemporary concert music singer , Stewart Figa, a cantor and singer of Yiddish song, Iordanka Kissiova, a classically-trained violinist, bassist Mark Sonksen and drummer Danny Howard.

The Grammy-nominated New Budapest Orpheum Society is visiting Leeds as part of the Out of the Shadows festival on 18th June at Clothworkers Centenery Concert Hall.

Usually when Grammy-nominated artists come to town, they head to Leeds’ own first direct arena. But The New Budapest Orpheum Society is not your ordinary nominee. Hailing from Chicago, this classical ensemble comprising of eight musicians works with the research project, Performing the Jewish Archive to preserve and play the oft-forgotten Jewish cabaret music. JLife’s Evangeline Spachis spoke to members Professor Ilya Levinson, composer-pianist, and Phil Bohlman, an expert in Jewish music ahead of their visit to Leeds on 18th June.


How did it feel to be nominated at the 58th Grammys in classical music recently?
Several of us went to LA for the awards ceremony; we enjoyed it very much! We are slowly feeling that we are being noticed and the people are starting to pay attention to the music we perform. Jewish cabaret is hardly a household name, and in the past, the audiences didn’t know what to expect from our programme. Of course, now, the Grammy nomination brings more legitimacy to our music for the mainstream listener.


You often play and record music taken from the lost art of Jewish cabaret. Could you tell our readers more about this?
Jewish cabaret became the art that represented the trials and tribulations of Jewish society in the 19th and 20th centuries. As Jews migrated from Eastern Europe to escape persecution and then struggled to survive in the Holocaust, they turned to cabaret as a source for hope and humour.

Jewish cabaret was a cultural and political laboratory for the great literary figures and musicians of a modern Europe in dramatic transition. It is hardly surprising that the first synchronised sound films, The Jazz Singer (1927) and Der blaue Engel (1930), were not only about Jewish cabaret, but many of their memorable scenes were shot in cabarets.


Where does the name of the ensemble derive from?
The first Jewish cabaret of Vienna was established in 1888 and was called the ‘Budapester Orpheumgesellschaft’, which translates to ‘Budapest Orpheum Society’. The reference to Budapest was a gesture to the exotic Eastern Europe, where many of musicians and actors had come from. The original Budapest Orpheum Society disbanded in 1918, when many of its members were sent to the frontlines of the First World War


How does your background and heritage inform the work?
Each member of the ensemble has a different history and engagement with Judaism and Jewish culture and music. Several members come from European heritage, recent and in the past, for example, Iordanka Kissiova is from Bulgaria and is Danny Howard from the UK. Stewart Figa draws from the rich store of Yiddish songs that he knows through his parents, both Holocaust survivors. Ilya was born in the USSR and grew up around Yiddish and Klezmer music. I, myself have home in Berlin and teach in Germany.

Some members are Jewish, others are not, but we are drawn to the poignant beauty and power of the Jewish music repertoires we bring together. The repertoires we perform often have very personal origins for us. We always turn to the past generation of those who went – and sang – before us, and we seek to perform in ways that honour their lives.


Are you looking forward to visiting Yorkshire during your UK tour?
We are very much looking forward to performing in Leeds. It was great working with the team from the Out of the Shadows festival, and feel very honoured to contribute to Performing the Jewish Archive. We’re now looking forward to sharing our special art form with audiences in Leeds and Yorkshire.

In addition, I will be performing with Christine Wilkie Bohlman in Viktor Ullmann’s ‘The Chronicle of Love and Death of the Flag-Bearer Christoph Rilke’, a stunningly beautiful concentration camp melodrama for speaker and piano. It will be at Holy Trinity Church on 17th June.

The New Budapest Orpheum Society will be performing at Clothworkers Centenery Concert Hall on 18th June. To book tickets, visit