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Itzhak Perlman Explores His Klezmer Soul

Concert review: Itzhak Perlman and four klezmer bands at Tanglewood

Tanglewood--the Berkshire summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra--was never like this before! Normally the province of tuxedo-clad classical musicians playing orchestral favorites, this night saw classically trained performers wearing casual clothing--even some tie-dyed t-shirts ... an array of drums and amplifiers on stage ... audience members clapping out the complex rhythms ... and lots of dancing in the aisles of the Shed.

The featured performer was violinist Itzhak Perlman--no stranger to Tanglewood and other great classical stages--but the music was not classical, but klezmer.

Klezmer, the folk music of Eastern European Jews, is a lively and varied music. Like so much of Jewish culture, klezmer lives and breathes and changes--constantly drawing from its surroundings. From minor-key dirges influenced by Jewish liturgy and Arab folk traditions, to hard-driving dance music backed by roaring clarinets and trumpets, to lightning-fast Hungarian Gypsy fiddle tunes, klezmer has absorbed the traditions around it in every country where the Jews of Eastern Europe settled--including the United Sates, where klezmer has sometimes been called "Jewish jazz." Note to Yiddish speakers: I did the best I could with the spellings. Please forgive any errors.

It was in the U.S. that klezmer was rediscovered in the 1960s and '70s, the spirit of the old wandering musicians breathing new life into the music as ensembles of young musicians began to explore an almost-lost tradition.

Some years ago, Itzhak Perlman began to explore the range and power of klezmer music. He contacted several bands and began playing with them--a journey captured in a wonderful 1995 PBS documentary, "In the Fiddler's House."

Having seen the video and heard the CD, I was delighted to discover that Perlman was bringing four klezmer bands to Tanglewood (only an hour from my house).

The concert, July 31, 1997, brought together musicians with a wide range of styles--and Perlman played flawlessly with all of them. First on the stage was Brave Old World, a quartet with a classically-influenced, sparse modernist sound.

Their first piece, composed especially for Perlman by musical director Alan Bern, opened with a long, slow section for just piano and violin, where the piano pealed like a church bell while Perlman's sweet tone could have been the choir. Then the tempo moved up for a while--and already, in the first song, the audience enthusiastically clapped along--only to drop back down as the clarinet and percussion came in. It felt like something holy, a piece that would be welcomed in a Friday night service.

The second number, a fast, staccato piece with many layers, cultivated a fuzzy, space-age sound--a bit discordant, but still giving weight to melody; Perlman at one point added some Swedish-style fiddling to the dominant accordion. At another point, it sounded almost like a 90 mph-version of a familiar liturgical tune--and, in fact, it was announced as based on a Sabbath welcome song.

Next was a classic gypsy melody, with a slow beginning, several rounds of increasing speed, and a dramatic ultra-fast climax. Perlman--looking relaxed and animated, and with a huge grin--was heavily featured on this number, along with a hammered dulcimer.

Brave Old World's final song was the first with a vocal: "Samposhkelach": The Yiddish words to this love song translate as, "I would sell my boots and go riding in carriages in order to be with you. You without me and me without you is like a doorknob without a door." A highlight of this song was a frenzied dance by singer and violinist Michael Alpert.

Next on were the Klezmatics. They take a loud, almost confrontative approach to the music, and their style is also very modern. Drums provide some serious energy, and the overall sound draws from the southern and eastern fringes of klezmer territory; the Balkan and Mediterranean influence combined with a bit of good old rock 'n roll makes for a sound that feels almost like 3 Mustaphas 3 (who produced at least one of the group's recordings).

This group has come from some pretty diverse places. Vocalist Lorin Sklamberg used to sing in a gay Jewish folk duo, while trumpeter Frank London--disclaimer: he's a personal friend for the last 21 years, and what a thrill it is to see him playing with Perlman!--was for many years a part of the brassy-but-traditional Klezmer Conservatory Band (KCB). The Klezmatics have played with everyone from poet Allen Ginsberg to choreographer Twyla Tharp.

This set leaned heavily on drinking songs: first from the Hungarian Gypsies, and then for their fourth number, an a cappella call-and-response Shabbes (Sabbath) drinking song. Perlman took a vocal solo here, showing off a very deep voice--pleasant, but nothing like the beautiful tone of his violin.

The group's three other tunes included a fast, short rocker, an eerie violin duet with light piano in the background called "Dybbuck Shiddich" (Ghost Wedding), and a happy, upbeat song in which a fisherman fails to catch fish, and sings, "tra la la la la, my life is a disaster." This merged into a fabulous Perlman solo, both fast and soulful.

After the intermission, the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra took the stage. Statman was trained by legendary clarinetist Dave Tarras, who merged klezmer with Dixieland and swing in the 1920s, '30s and '40s (and enjoyed significant commercial success). Tarras' influence goes much deeper than his own music; it's hard to imagine either Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing" or the bilingual love song made famous by the Andrews sisters, "Bai Mir Bis Du Shoen" if Tarras hadn't paved the way.

Though Tarras himself happily brought western influences deep into the music, the Statman sound was the most traditional of the four bands. Statman featured the mandolin heavily, as the perfect counterpart to Perlman's violin. The drummer was present to augment the sound, but not to drive it forward as the Klezmatics do.

though they certainly knew how to play fast and well--their final piece, Tate und Mama Tans" (Father and Mother Dance) as rapid-fire as any bluegrass tune--this group was most special on the slow stuff. One magical moment was a mournful, elegant "Shalom Aleichem", featuring two long and haunting solos by Perlman, and dedicated to recent victims of a terrorist bombing in Israel in the hope that this would not stand in the way of peace. Many in the audience sang along, and the holiness of the music was palpable.

The final band was Frank London's alma mater, KCB, in a smallish version of what is sometimes a much larger combo. Twelve members of the group were present to do a set featuring traditional music for Jewish weddings. This set was dedicated to Tanglewood founding conductor Serge Koussevitzky, descended from a long line of klezmers.

Perlman asked for the house lights, and several songs were done with them on, so hundreds from the audience could twist their way down the aisles of the Shed in safety as Perlman and the others played, and powerful vocalist Judy Bressler belted out the words.

Four of their five songs were on the wedding theme: "Broiges Tants," with a classic big band sound; "Speil da Leide a Chasene Mishpoche" (Sing a Song for the Groom's Family), featuring a number of musical jokes as Perlman made his fiddle "talk" in various humanoid voices; "A Freilach fun de Chuppa" (A Happy Song From the Wedding Canopy, traditionally sung right after the groom smashes a glass), and "Machatena" (In-law song, sung by a mother to her new relatives). Always playful, they even threw in a bit of the Can-Can on that one.

To break up the wedding music, the third song was a slow one, "Dobre Noch" (Good Night). Bandleader Hankus Netsky urged everyone to imagine it played by an old, abandoned piano in a forgotten catering hall, reflecting on the many weddings it witnessed. Bressler had a scat-singing part here, and the instrumentalists played a bit on the theme of Brahams' lullaby.

Finally, all the musicians trooped out on stage, to play Netsky's tribute to Perlman for making it all happen: a thunderous, driving tune called "Itzhak Mach a Groise Simche" (Itzhak Made a Great Celebration).

It was, indeed, a night to remember.

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