Sunday evening at Joe’s Pub, was pianist Alexander Zhurbin’s overture from the Russian musical Lips a pavane of lost souls, or a parody of a love song?
Both, actually. There are more optimal ways of recording a concert’s most memorable moments than scribbling in a darkened theatre and then trying to decipher those notes. And there was so much more, in almost two nonstop hours of music, than any hasty note-taking could cover. Shifting effortlessly through lush neoromantic themes, darkly gleaming art-song, bulgar punk and a few detours toward Brighton Beach piano-bar singalongs, Zhurbin and his singer wife Irena Ginzburg underscored their status as icons of Russian music over the past forty-plus years.
At this show, three generations of Zhurbins celebrated that legacy. Their son Ljova, the great violist, joined in on several numbers and contributed a couple of his own works. There was Garmoshka, a poignant, bittersweet theme whose title refers to a small Russian accordion. “Or anything you can squeeze – this song is almost about that,” he explained. The other was a stern, stripped-down take of By the Campfire, sung with bristling intensity by his wife, the riveting vocalist Inna Barmash. “The wisdom of our days teaches lies, deceit and hate,” she sang, in Russian, a perennially apt commentary from the 12th century Goliards which Ljova’s grandfather had translated.
The elder Zhubin has a vast body of work, both scoring and playing film and theatre music. Maybe because he’s been called on to write for so many different idioms, the songs and instrumentals on the bill evoked just about every emotion possible: depth and suspense and longing, but also sly wit and outright boisterous fun. Being set pieces, many of those numbers were tantalizingly brief. He built a swaying intensity using bell tones in a song from his 1975 rock opera Orpheus and Eurydice, the very first of its kind to somehow make it past the Soviet censors. Another theme, from the 1980 film Flying Hussars Squadron, had an even more ominously epic sweep. Often he’d begin a tune on a more lighthearted note before bringing in the clouds, as with many of the World War II-themed material from the popular Russian tv drama Moscow Saga.
Decked out as a punk cabaret star in a classy black top and leather pants, rocking a sharp blonde hairdo, Ginzburg channeled as just as broad a spectrum of feeling, unleashing her powerful yet often understated mezzo-soprano. The material ranged from the tender ballad Isn’t It Beautiful – a co-write with their husband – to more bittersweet, as in the Moscow Tram Song, dedicated to the popular Russian-Georgian poet and songwriter Bulat Okudzhava. After romping through a bouncy, theatrical medley of his songs, and then a similarly animated trio of tunes from Zhurbin’s 1987 musical Sunset, they closed with a reprise of their hit Life Is Like a Horse. At that point, everybody was onstage, the couple’s grandsons raising the vaudevillian factor a few notches at the end as the crowd clapped along.
Zhurbin and Ginzburg don’t have anything upcoming scheduled at the moment, although lately Joe’s Pub has been their home base. Ljova’s next New York appearance is with Barmash in their wild Romany/klezmer/rock string band Romashka at Flushing Town Hall on March 23 at 8 PM on a twinbill with similarly energetic western swing band Brain Cloud; tix are $16.