BOSTON — The 33-year-old classically trained, critically acclaimed composer has had opera, chamber and orchestral works commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Israeli Philharmonic and the Tanglewood Music Center.
Matti Kovler, who was born in Moscow and raised in Israel, has been based in Boston since 2009. He is completing his PhD at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he earned a Master’s degree.
He is one of six recipients of a $15,000 Brother Thomas fellowship awarded by the Boston Foundation, and is one of the 2014 recipients of a Natan Fund ROI grant to support development of his rock opera, “Or” (Light). This year, he is serving as the first-ever artist-in-residence at Northeastern University’s Hillel. “Matti has greatly enhanced moments of celebration and solemnity by weaving beautiful musical moments into our religious celebrations, parties, vigils and Israeli salons,” said NU Hillel Executive Director Arinne Braverman.
In addition to his achievements in the world of classical music, Kovler is creating a new form of Jewish music theater that pushes the boundaries beyond the familiar shtetl sounds of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“For me, Jewish musical theater is broad. It’s not just one genre,” Kovler told the Journal. He defines it as “any work of art, musical or performance art — even circus art — with some explicit Jewish element, language or narrative.”
Among his many compositions are children’s operas with humorous songs such as “Kruv Eem Mayonnaise (“Cabbage with Mayonnaise”), and a jazz-infused parody of the biblical tale, “The Escape of Jonah.”
Boston residents will get a chance to hear a sampling of Kovler’s Jewish musical theater compositions at a performance by the Matti Kovler Ensemble on Sunday, March 23, at 7 p.m. at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, as part of the Boston Jewish Music Festival.
The Ensemble, founded in 2009 as an outlet for Kovler’s Jewish musical theater work, features Israeli singer/actress Tutti Druyan, who is studying at Berklee College of Music; Brookline pianist/composer Matthew Shifrin; and American Idol Season 10 star Brett Lowenstern, who is now a student at Berklee College of Music.
In the BJMF program notes for the concert, Laura Mandel describes Kovler as a “bit of a musical wonder.” Mandel, director of New Center Now for young adults, applauds Kovler for producing a music video featuring hundreds of Northeastern students in response to acts of vandalism against the school’s Hanukkah menorah.
At Northeastern, Kovler is using his new position to attract young adults to the world of Jewish musical theater — music he describes as universally engaging.
Under the sponsorship of NU Hillel, he launched the Israel Music Salon — an informal monthly gathering that brings together students from Northeastern, Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory and Boston University. Last month’s Salon attracted a global mix of some 20 students from America, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
It’s billed as an informal evening of falafel, hummus and song.
“The idea is to give a musical outlet to Jewish and non-Jewish students, and to introduce elements of Israel which avoids the politics,” Kovler explained.
Braverman commented, “I have seen [Kovler] approach a group of strangers and half an hour later have a group performing a song in Hebrew, with passion.”
In a cozy, informal space at the NU Hillel building, Kovler and Flori Namir, an Israeli singer-songwriter who is a PhD candidate in music composition at Brandeis, taught the group a few Hebrew songs, with transliteration. One was by Tunisian-born Israeli superstar, Idan Raichel.
The scene could be a poster for music as cultural diplomacy.
Kovler steers clear of giving it a label, but recognizes the value of bringing together students from different cultures over food and song.
He is grateful to NU Hillel for giving him a roof and a place to establish a base for his Jewish music theater. At a time when Jewish organizations are struggling to attract young people, he credits Braverman and the NU Hillel leadership for recognizing the power of the arts, and music in particular, as a social glue to help foster Jewish identity.
He also sees the arts as a way to engage Israeli artists living in the U.S.
“Now, there’s a deep disconnect between young Israelis living in Boston and Russian Jews and American Jews. They are different communities,” he observes.
Through his ensemble, he draws on all three communities and that, in turn, attracts a diverse audience.
“The Jewish world today should encourage the mix,” he asserts.
For tickets to the March 23 performance of the Matti Kovler Ensemble, visit bostonjewishmusicfestival.com. For more on Matti Kovler’s music and other upcoming performances, visit mattikovler.com.