Robyn Helzner Trio kicks off Passages in high style

Robyn Helzner. Photo by Yvonne Taylor.

Robyn Helzner. Photo by Yvonne Taylor.

Upwards of 350 people gathered in the auditorium of Lexis Preparatory Academy on the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus on Sunday for the opening of the 2013 Passages series presented by the Bureau of Jewish Education.

The Robyn Helzner Trio, which thanks to it basic approach (mostly guitar, bass and mandolin with three-part harmony vocals) resembles a bluegrass group, gave the audience a whirlwind tour of Jewish music from Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Israeli sources.

Helzner showed a deft touch for drama and comedy in explaining the stories the lyrics in Ladino, Yiddish and Hebrew told. And she got the crowd singing along with niggunlike, wordless choruses such as in the sprightly “Likrat Shabbat.” The audience also sang along enthusiastically the trio’s take on “Oseh Shalom” and its Selichot staple “Turn, Turn, Turn” (Pete Seeger’s take on Ecclesiastes, which was popularized by The Byrds way back in the Stone Age of folk-rock).

Bass player Matt Holsen and mandolinist Dov Weitman showed versatility as well, switching to electric keyboard and guitar respectively on several tunes. Weitman’s considerable songwriting skills were also displayed with his hot jazz setting of Hillel’s words from Pirkei Avot in “Hillel Haya Omer” and his gorgeously plaintive setting of the creation story in “B’reishit.” Helzner also contributed a lovely tune in her setting of the Shabbat poem “D’Ror Yikra.”

Kudos to the BJE for opening the new secular year with such a big bang … and it was good.


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