Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Songs For The Soul

Music and rhythm find their way
 into the secret places of the soul.  

                                                                                         -- Plato
         It was standing room only for the Klezmer concert at the Sedona Jewish Community Center last week. Chamber music lovers from miles around showed up -- I even saw my next door neighbor there -- for an evening with the ravishingly talented Chamber Music Sedona (www.chambermusicsedona.org) Winter MusicFest ensemble,
Chamber Music Sedona's 2015
 Winter MusicFest musicians
including rising star clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein.  Klezmer, which means 'instrument of song', is composed of traditional and classical Jewish rhythms that are irresistible and haunting, with the musicians striving to imitate the sounds of feelings like sobs or whines or laughter on their instruments. As they played, we were literally almost dancing in the aisles, enlivened by this spirited music with its historic folk, jazz and classical roots. Rocking, swaying and bobbing in our chairs we fell into sublime jollity, winking, smiling and nodding at one other. This music was medicine, new to me and I loved it. It made me feel happy, alive and glad be a part of this tradition on this merry evening. Which is of course the whole point of Klezmer.

 The Zimro Project
      Visiting with Zimro Project founder 
Alexander Fiterstein
       Klezmer music from its very beginnings was written and played to touch and warm the heart and soul. Modern works like composers like Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov's "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind" which the MusicFest ensemble played to perfection, present a trio of perspectives viewed through languages: The prelude and the first movement, the most ancient, in Aramaic, with the second movement in Yiddish, the rich and fragile language of a long exile. The third movement and postlude is in sacred Hebrew. The powerful result is a tour de force of Jewish history through song. After the final MusicFest concert I caught up briefly with Alexander Fiterstein (www.fiterstein.com) and learned about The Zimro Project, an ensemble he founded dedicated to incorporating Jewish art music into chamber music programs such as the Sedona Winter MusicFest. Jewish art music is a unique blending of traditional Jewish melodic constructs with the rich chromatic harmonies of late Russian romantic music.The Zimro Project was inspired by the Zimro Ensemble, a group active a century ago in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Benny Goodman
         Fiterstein, who was born in Belarus and grew up in Israel, is a highly personable young man probably in his late thirties who teaches at the University of Minnesota when he isn't concertizing around the world. His stellar Klezmer music interpretations with the rich sounds of a singing, swinging clarinet, reminded me of my enduring fascination with the big bands and swing music of the depression era thirties with its tumult, angst, and transformative musical innovations. When I mentioned to him I thought he sounded a lot like the young Benny Goodman, he broke into a huge grin. I should have known...it turns out he's a big Goodman fan and had listened to both classical composers and Goodman records he found at home when he was a boy growing up.

The Angels Sing
           Klezmer music's popularity has been an evolution, says Ed Goldberg, a Klezmer musician who has a couple of websites devoted to his band and Klezmer music (odessaklezmer.com). At the turn of the 20th century when Jewish musicians migrated to New York City, they were integrated into jazz bands and big bands like Benny Goodman's. In fact, says Goldberg, listen to "And the Angels Sing" and about a third of the way in you'll hear a Klezmer inspired riff as the song drops the vocal and switches to a syncopated rhythm, staccato trumpet, and wailing clarinet.  ("And the Angels Sing" Benny Goodman and his Orchestra). Other American classical composers with Jewish roots incorporated at  least a little of the Klezmer sound into their works, notably George Gershwin. Then its influence waned, but a revival began in the 1970s. Now it's making another comeback. A measure of it's power and enduring popularity and myriad expression in popular and classical forms, says Goldberg, is that for centuries in Europe the music had been underground, forbidden at worst and frowned upon at best. "There was even an edict in 19th century Ukraine forbidding the playing of loud instruments — and Klezmer is definitely not soft, music to dine by. It’s get up and dance already' music."Amen!

Early Klezmer musicians





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