Concerts in Morristown featuring work by Samuel J. Bernstein will be a homecoming for the 75-year-old composer, who was born in Jersey City and raised in West New York and later North Bergen.
Singer-songwriter Lisa Yves will sing music by Bernstein — and George Gershwin and Cole Porter — in “Love & Dreams,” a concert at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theater on Sept. 8 and 9. Bernstein will attend both performances and said he looks forward to chatting with audience members.
“It’s a very nice group to be part of. It’s a tremendous honor, actually,” Bernstein said in a telephone interview from his home in Framingham, Mass.
Bernstein, a professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston, is a playwright and composer when he isn’t teaching drama or creative writing. Much of his work, which includes plays, musical theater, and musical compositions, has Jewish themes, sometimes overt — as in his most recent play, Olympics Uber Alles, written with former student Marguerite Krupps, which tells of two Jewish athletes barred from the 1936 Berlin Olympics — at times subtle, as in the songs audiences will hear at the Bickford concert.
“If you listen very carefully” to his compositions that Yves will perform, Bernstein said, “you will hear strains of Jewish music. It has a plaintive quality that may remind you of things associated with the Jewish theater on Second Avenue or certain pieces of music by Jewish composers.
“The average listener probably won’t recognize it, but some people will.”
Bernstein said when he was a boy, his mother hoped he would become a rabbi, but he had other plans. “I very much respect and value Jewish culture and the existence of the State of Israel, and I love klezmer music and Jewish stories,” he said. “I have never really felt entirely comfortable with complete immersion in the ongoing activities of a temple. I find it overwhelming.”
It’s in his music and his writing, he said, that his Jewishness often finds expression. “It’s there because it’s inside me — the formative strains of my artistic and emotional consciousness are a Jewish awareness and a sense of Jewish culture.” He added that after showing his music to a rehearsal pianist at a theater where one of his plays was being produced, the pianist said, “Ah, your Jewish roots are there in your music.”
Bernstein’s father, Leon Bernstein (no relation to Leonard), played first mandolin with the New Jersey Mandolin Orchestra when such ensembles were a staple of amateur musicians. (Today in New Jersey, there is only one left: the Bloomfield Mandolin Orchestra.) “As a child, my head was filled more with music than with words,” said Bernstein. “This sounds so cliche, but every day when he came back from work, my father played the mandolin, we would sit and listen. He played opera, ethnic, Hebrew, and Yiddish songs, as you can imagine.”
Bernstein said he feels a kinship with singer Lisa Yves, who grew up in New York attending yeshiva through high school. (She now lives in Sharon, Mass.) At a rehearsal for the Morristown shows, he said, “We looked at each other and realized the music sounded so much like what both of us recognized as prominent strains in Jewish music.”
He offered the example of one song in particular, whose lyrics tell the story of a person once famous growing old alone.
Still, he said, the key question is not whether a person can recognize the “Jewish” in his music. Rather, he said, “The important question is, does it make them feel something powerful? That’s what is important.”