Summary for the Busy Executive: Play, klezmer! Play!
Literally, "k'li zemer" means "instrument of song," slurred to the more common "klezmer," which means "musician." Klezmer music – rather pleonastically named – has come to refer mainly to the music played by the Jewish wedding bands of Eastern Europe. Many now associate it with the Hassidic sect of Judaism. One of the Klezmatics, I believe, defined klezmer music as "Jewish jazz." That's certainly true of American klezmer, influenced by its lively surroundings, but klezmer isn't really limited to these borders. It absorbed the surrounding music from every country in which it was played. South American musicians allied the wails of the klezmer band to a samba beat. Still, klezmer from one country binds itself to that of another by a certain sound. The clarinet – sometimes the flute or the violin – takes the lead, and there's a certain sharpness of intonation that gives a bite. The lead instrument sings floridly, in the manner of cantorial chant, usually over a strong dance beat.
All the composers here celebrate this sound in their own way. One writer's work differs markedly from his colleagues, and one moves over a large span of styles – from the relatively straightforward and simple arrangements of Jacob Weinberg, to the "crossover" arrangements of Ellstein, the classic Modernism of Robert Starer, the effervescent post-Modern eclecticism of Paul Schoenfield, and the electrified (and electrifying) Osvaldo Golijov. Weinberg, a Russian intellectual city boy with no personal ties to klezmer, approaches the tunes much as Brahms did "gypsy" music: that is, taming the music by smoothing it into a current idiom – Tchaikovskian, in Weinberg's case. Abraham Ellstein's a bit more complicated. Some may recognize the name as one of the "big four" composers for the American Yiddish theater, but Ellstein studied, among other places, at Juilliard. He knew far more music than he needed to write songs for the theater, and indeed he has classical pieces in his catalogue. However, he was also a working commercial musician, particularly as an arranger of recording repertoire for the likes of Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker. His "Hassidic Dance" leans a bit toward that category. The accompaniment shows that Ellstein has at least listened to his Modernist contemporaries, but the real strength of the piece comes from Ellstein's refusal to prettify the melody. He goes for the klezmer whine in the tune, even though his accompaniment smoothes out the bite, like cream in dark-roast coffee.
Starer – composer of a terrific viola concerto, incidentally – takes klezmer into a personal idiom with a neoclassical base for his K'li Zemer, in effect a clarinet concerto. Actually, he doesn't limit the piece to klezmer but rather explores more implications of "k'li zemer," "instrument of song." Starer essentially writes a concerted suite for clarinet and small orchestra. We begin in the synagogue with the first movement, "T'fillot (Prayers)," allowing the clarinet to evoke cantorial chant without quotation. The movement flies across a wide range of emotion – meditative, tender, passionate, angry – in a similar way as Bloch's Schelomo. Although the two composers' idioms differ, they share a particular mix of contemplation and ardor. The second movement bursts in – a rapid dance in mixed meter (it may remind some of Bernstein's take on Middle Eastern dances) with breaks featuring solo licks from the clarinet. The slow movement, "Manginot" (Melodies), hovers between accompanied song and counterpoint. The greater part of it caresses. Again, the composer suspends work's progress with improvisatory-like interludes (duets, mostly) for the clarinet and other melody instruments. The third movement mainly declaims, and again the composer interrupts with solo clarinet commentary. It seems to me the improvisation of klezmer attracts the composer as much as anything else and seems to represent the self at its most particular. "O, for a muse of fire," says Shakespeare. I wish I could convey how powerfully moving this work is. Any comparison I want to make to someone else's work seems to me to lessen it and furthermore to smear, rather than to sharpen, its outlines. Starer may be almost as powerful as Bloch or almost as electrifying as Bernstein, but he's first and foremost his own man, with a concentration foreign to Bloch and an emotional balance beyond Bernstein. If anything, in this concerto, I think of Starer as a kind of Jewish Nielsen.
Paul Schoenfield began Klezmer Rondos as a commission for flutist Carol Wincenc. That incarnation of the piece used to be available on the defunct Argo label (440212-2). Understandably, it was originally billed as a concerto, but this belies its true character. The flute is simply one soloist among many. However, one categorizes the work with difficulty. It reaches out both to the Baroque concerto grosso and to the Romantic tone poem, as well as to the "stewpot scherzos" of Charles Ives (think of the "Hawthorne" movement in the Concord Sonata). Indeed, it reminds me most of Ives, but again not because of Schoenfield's musical language. At any rate, Schoenfield revised the work, dropping a long saxophone passage and picking up a tenor soloist, among other things, along the way. The opening bars, as the orchestra imitates a raucous Second Avenue theater pit band, tell you this work not only flouts concerto conventions, but expectations of concert music itself. Yiddish-American klezmer runs through the concerto, but so do Bernsteinian takes on jazz, particularly the On the Town and Mass incarnations, a song of the Lubavitcher Hassidim, Threepenny Opera Weill, a hint of Gershwin, and even a little Richard Rodgers here and there. It's a wonderful, messy work which conjures up the rich world of the lower East Side, and I can think of few composers other than Schoenfield who could hold it all together. One high point among many in the first movement has to be the tenor solo wowing the crowd with a song by Schoenfield that proudly proclaims its Yiddish theater heritage: "Mirele," with words by poet Michl Virt. The second movement, played without pause, begins with a whiney cadenza from the flute against a shimmering background. This sort of thing takes considerable composing chops, especially since it lasts about half the movement. Schoenfield never loses a listener's interest or takes the easy way out of just noodling around chromatically. He does make the flute sound as if it's simply riffing, but he always has some musical point to make. At the start of the movement's second half, the orchestra takes up with what sounds to me like a slow wedding dance and eventually speeds up to a manic pace. Ideas from the first movement reappear, including snatches of "Mirele," all jostling together. It reminds me a bit of those crowded panels of the old Harvey Kurtzman Mad magazine, where something hysterically insane seemed to peek out from every obscure (and sometimes not-so-obscure) nook. The band drops back briefly to catch its breath, winding up for the final frenzied assault. The clarinet, by the way, at this point asserts itself more than the flute. So much for a vehicle for a star flutist.
Osvaldo Golijov mixes influences from his native South America (including Piazzola) with Bartók, Prokofieff, Bernstein, some George Crumb and a pinch of minimalism, and, of course, Eastern European klezmer and even Jewish liturgical music. I find him a little uneven, but at his best he wows me. Rocketekya falls unquestionably into the wow bin. Golijov explains its title by referring to the piece's origin in a vision of a shofar sounding in a rocket (the Hebrew tekya means "to blow"). Definitely odd, but there you are. It's a chamber quartet for the unconventional ensemble of clarinet, violin, electric viola, and bass. The sound is almost pure acid, accentuated by the sharpness and a repertoire of "alien" sounds (including 78 rpm record "crackle") from the electric viola. The piece opens with a jazzy, samba-like beat. One hears the heterophony of hard bop in many of the quieter parts. Rocketekya rockets along. I have no idea how it holds together or why it holds together so compellingly. Basically, it just scoops me up and takes me for an exciting ride.
The performers are uniformly wonderful. Who'd have thought Catalonians were my landsleit? Schwarz gets readings as exciting as I've ever heard from him. Krakauer does heroic, fearless work on the clarinet in works of widely different character. Scott Goff plays sensitively amidst the whirl of the Schoenfield. Tenor Alberto Mizrahi brings down the house in "Mirele." The Rocketekya ensemble swings hard, driven by bassist Pablo Aslan.
An outstanding disc from Naxos and the Milken Archive.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz