I was looking earlier today for an old disc on Argo dedicated to the music of the composer Paul Schoenfield. That recording remains missing in action for now, but happily this special program was waiting for me instead (the Argo disc also includes Schoenfield's exciting, musical melting-pot of a concerto, "Klezmer Rondos" which is found here). The Milken Archive of American Jewish Music (founded in 1990...the Milken Family Foundation was founded in 1982) is a treasure trove and it was in the early 2000s that Naxos began releasing these recordings as part of their growing "American Classics" series. The Robert Starer piece "K'li Zemer" and Paul Schoenfield's "Klezmer Rondos" are the most substantial works here, and both are terrific. We also get a work by Osvaldo Golijov, who was much lesser known at the time (the Kronos recording of Golijov's "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind" wasn't yet released-that would come the following year).
This collection has much to admire (including musicians such as David Krakauer and Scott Goff!) but as I will only be able to get three hours of rest even if I get in bed now, I will leave the music to do the talking, the dancing and so on ;)
Here are some of the booklet notes:
Robert Starer: K'LI ZEMER
K'li zemer was commissioned by the celebrated clarinetist and neo-klezmer exponent Giora Feidman, but premiered in 1988 by Peter Alexander, with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, conducted by Leon Botstein.
The term k'li zemer is translated literally from the Hebrew as "instrument of song." But the contraction of the two words centuries ago became the Yiddish klezmer, meaning simply "instrumental musician," although it came to connote wedding band and street band players rather than classical concert performers. The clarinet was one of the chief virtuoso solo instruments in many klezmer bands in 19th- and 20th-century eastern Europe, although it was probably preceded in its dominant role by the violin and, in early bands, even by the flute. Its virtual hegemony as the soloistic instrument associated with so-called klezmer music is probably more a phenomenon of the American experience, beginning with the early eastern European immigrant era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And in the pantheon of famous klezmer band musicians, the roster of renowned clarinet virtuosos looms large, with such accomplished artists as Naftule Brandwein, Dave Tarras, and Shloimeke Beckerman.
Discussing this concerto, Starer explained, "While all the thematic ideas in K'li zemer are my own, they do lean toward the melodies of eastern European Jewish music, with which I have been familiar since my childhood in Vienna and my youth in Jerusalem; the music played at weddings and similar occasions [among eastern European Jews] by small groups of musicians, whose favorite instruments were [often] the violin and clarinet."
K'li zemer is in four movements, with no pause between the last two. Their descriptive titles indicate corresponding moods. T'fi llot (Prayers) begins with solo clarinet in passages of deep meditative character, almost trancelike, as if worldly thoughts and concerns have been set aside during communication with God. Starer described the entrance of the high strings as reflective of a congregation in a synagogue service joining the cantor following his solo recitative. The music gradually increases in intensity, approaching the idealized ecstatic state especially embraced by Hassidim. When the full orchestra enters, led by brass and percussion, it is as if the prayer experience has reached its climax. Gradually the mood winds down to its conclusion, once again in its opening moods.
A dance tune opens the second movement, Rikkudim (Dances), which recurs in the manner of classical rondo form. There is an interesting contrast between old and new, traditional and modern, in Starer's inclusion of a contemporary rhythm (10/8) for one of the dance sections, while in another a typical 19th-century eastern European Jewish wedding or "klezmer" sound is recalled when the clarinet is accompanied by bass and drum alone.
The third movement, Manginot (Melodies), features a long, spun-out melody in the clarinet's soulful low register. Its natural softness is reminiscent of a folk lullaby, which later in the movement is taken over by the English horn, with the clarinet now in contrapuntal figures against it to give the improvisational character of authentic klezmer bands. The finale, Hakdashot (Dedications) — marked allegro moderato — opens with a timpani solo and a dialogue between solo clarinet and full orchestra.
Starer wrote that when he was a student at Tanglewood many years before writing this concerto, Darius Milhaud had advised him always to "invent his own folk melodies." "I listened to him," Starer later wrote with reference to this piece, "and have followed his advice." Yet the overall feeling and character of traditional eastern European melos prevails throughout.
Just prior to the conclusion of the final movement, there is a brief echo of the opening passage of the first, recalling the "prayer" theme.
Paul Schoenfield: KLEZMER RONDOS
Paul Schoenfield's Klezmer Rondos, written for flutist Carol Wincenc in 1989 on commission from the National Endowment Consortium Commission Grant, was originally conceived for a small accompanying ensemble in order to portray some of the typical eastern European klezmer band idioms in the context of a cultivated concert work in the Western classical mold. The piece was revised and expanded in 1995 for its New York Philharmonic premiere and became a concerto for flute, tenor, and symphony orchestra. The new orchestration calls for a contemporary incarnation of an eastern European klezmer band, with some historically emblematic instruments along with other, atypical ones: E-flat (doubling on B-flat) clarinet; alto (doubling on soprano) and tenor saxophones; trumpet; cornet; trombone; tuba; an elaborate battery of percussion; piano; and strings.
The explosion of interest in America during the past three decades in the musical styles of 19th-century eastern European klezmer bands has accorded special focus to the solo virtuoso clarinet as the carrier of the stereotypical sonorities, flourishes, timbres, and special effects associated with those traditional ensembles. Other instruments, however, such as the violin and the trumpet, were at various times and in various locales at least equal contenders for that role, especially in the earlier stages of the klezmer band format. That the flute often played a major solo role in Europe is less commonly realized — especially in America during the first half of the 20th century, when such ensembles were almost never called "klezmer groups," but simply "wedding bands."
Yet some of the most celebrated eastern European klezmorim were flutists, such as the Polish-Jewish klezmer Michal Jozaf Guznikow (1806–37), so Schoenfield's choice of flute for this concerto is as historically appropriate as clarinet or violin. The flute doubles on piccolo as well here, giving added emphasis to the ecstatic, piercing character of certain idiomatic klezmer band sounds.
Schoenfield has noted that he was especially conscious of the historical role not only of the klezmer, but also of the professional badkhn — the jester, vocal merrymaker, quasi–folk singer, and overall entertainer at Jewish weddings in eastern Europe, especially outside larger cosmopolitan cities, and in western Europe before the modern era. Those badkhonim complemented the function of the instrumental musicians — a tradition dating to pre-medieval eras, as does the role of secular wedding musicians for pre- and post-ceremonial festivities. For a long time after the destruction of the Second Temple, all instrumental music and even secular vocal music was prohibited, as a sign of collective mourning. But so important in Judaism is the mandate for rejoicing at weddings, and assisting the bride and bridegroom to rejoice, that the related festivities were (along with Purim) the first occasions to be excepted by rabbinical authority. Professional badkhonim are even mentioned in the Talmud for other roles. So, although "klezmer" denotes a strictly instrumental musician, Schoenfield's incorporation of a singing role as a paired presentation with klezmer idioms seems legitimately derived from the badkhn tradition.
Klezmer Rondos quotes directly the opening section of a song of the Lubavitcher Hassidim, 'Kol dodi' (Voice of My Beloved), from Song of Songs, attributed to the first Lubavitcher — or Habad — rebbe, Rabbi Shneier Zalman of Liady. A variation is often attributed to rebbes of different dynasties who were Rabbi Zalman's contemporaries. There is also the quotation of a well-known Lubavitcher niggun rikkud (dance tune), as well as other typical idiomatic Hassidic phrases and inflections throughout.
In discussing this work, Schoenfield identified the musical elements as those generally associated (in contemporary perception) with so-called klezmer music, i.e., eastern European modes, Gypsy scales and modes, quasi- and even pseudo-Hassidic songs and dances (often borrowed originally from local non-Jewish folk tunes), marches, Romanian dances, and Yiddish folksong motifs. An original Yiddish song in folk style, to the poem 'Mirele' by Michl Virt, concludes the first of the two movements. The following is a translation of this text:
The daughter of Dvoyrele the storekeeper is called:
pretty Mirele, Mirele!
And Dvoyrele says that her only consolation is Mirele.
The sun shines by day, the moon by night,
and Mirele stands by the window and laughs.
Mirele is charmingly, deliciously beautiful.
She has milk-white hands, pearly white teeth.
The boys become all pale from longing for her,
but Mirele's heart is colder than ice,
ay, Mirele, ay Mirele…
Under Mirele's window they all swarm;
Mirele sees the most handsome young men silent and still.
The sun shines by day, the moon by night,
and Mirele stands by the window and laughs.
Ay Mirele, ay Mirele…
Sighs are flying up to heaven.
They can neither eat nor sleep.
Their hearts are bursting from pain and suffering,
but no one could move the frozen heart of
Mirele, of Mirele…
The years flow by like water,
your beauty has come to an end,
your face has already darkened, your head hunched,
your eyes are bloodshot, and your braid is already gray.
The stars glow, the moon shines by night.
She stands by the window, saddened and pensive.
The clouds float hither and thither,
from Mirele's sad eyes a tear drops,
Mirele, cry, Mirele, cry Mirele…
(Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin)
In the program annotations to the New York Philharmonic premiere, critic Bernard Jacobson referred to Klezmer Rondos as representing a sort of pluralism of voices and idioms from the various cultures now heard in America that serve as inspirational sources for American composers. He also astutely observed that some of the related folk inflections (in this case, the so-called klezmer sounds) are, or can be, as much a part of Slavic and Hungarian traditions as of Jewish heritage alone. To those "foreign" origins one can add Romanian and Gypsy precursors. But these elements are used by Schoenfield in an entirely original way, organically integrated and infused within the piece and rising above a mere pedestrian quotation of tunes. That procedure seems to be characteristic of Schoenfield's work in general. One publisher has commented, "He frequently mixes ideas that grew up in entirely different worlds, making them talk to each other… and delighting in the surprises their interaction evokes." That assessment is particularly applicable to this work.
Klezmer Rondos was one of the first serious and successful attempts to employ the eastern European klezmer melos within a classical art music as well as symphonic framework. In this adventure Schoenfield has recalled Bartók's penchant for using authentic Hungarian folk material in symphonic and chamber works, and Gershwin's integration of indigenous American jazz features into classical forms such as the piano concerto and opera.
Jacob Weinberg: CANZONETTA and THE MAYPOLE
These short "encore" pieces began their unorchestrated concert lives as folksong and folk dance arrangements, based on authentic Jewish folk material culled from throughout the Pale of Settlement of the czarist empire and later reworked in their present form during Weinberg's (and possibly Simeon Bellison's) American years. Though Weinberg became a sophisticated and prolific composer of sacred as well as Jewish-related secular art music, his initial introduction to Jewish music of any kind was via just such folk music.
However, like most of his bourgeois, urbanized, and classically oriented colleagues and fellow composers associated with the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music), Weinberg did not come to these folk idioms firsthand. Rather, he encountered these genres from an intellectual perspective and an academic vantage point during his Moscow years. This exposure and interest also predated his years in Palestine, where his focus shifted from European to Near Eastern melos, and where, even though much Hebrew Palestinian song was based on Russian melodic elements, these particular idioms "of the Pale" were far removed from the "new" musical direction and aura associated with the forward-looking Zionist cultural ideals. Indeed, Weinberg's inspiration to create such pieces is testament to the mission as well as the influence of the Gesellschaft and its orientations.
Canzonetta — from a set of pieces entitled Bobe mayses (Old Wives' Tales) — and The Maypole were both arranged originally for clarinet and piano by the renowned clarinetist Simeon Bellison, who was prominent in the Jewish national art music movement in Russia even after the Bolshevik Revolution and who later was first clarinetist in the New York Philharmonic for twenty-eight years. Weinberg subsequently created these orchestral versions in the United States, presumably for Bellison to perform.
Canzonetta has transparent echoes of both an old Yiddish folk tune and a Hassidic melody, cleverly yet simply developed and intertwined without masking their identities.
The Maypole title is strange for a piece of eastern European Jewish connection, since the Maypole connotes the original English and European May Day ceremony welcoming the spring, with its traditional dances around the Maypole drawn from earlier pagan rituals. It is possible that this piece was intended to refract the Maypole dances through a Jewish sonic prism, alternating a sprightly springlike tune with a meditative clarinet passage that could conceivably portray the stately dance connected with the crowning of the May Queen. Alternatively, one might be tempted to draw some parallel to May Day's late role as a rallying occasion for the international labor movement and then the communist world — except that the politically oriented May Day holiday originated in America and the Maypole was not part of its ceremonies. Nor is the musical idiom or character of this piece in any way connected to songs of the Bundists or to the Jewish Labor Movement in the czarist empire (nor were Weinberg or his middle-class circle).
Both pieces are permeated with some of the prominent clarinet idioms associated with 19th-century eastern European klezmer practice, which are heavily dependent on the specialized skill of the soloist. The melodic features, however, are more related to Hassidic song and dance than to the repertoire of klezmer bands. These are miniatures — not truly representative of Weinberg, who wrote so many large-scale sacred and secular works. In fact, they are not even listed in his published catalogue, and were found only in manuscript in the Bellison collection in Israel. They are nonetheless charming and well-crafted pieces, eminently suited for encore performances.
Abraham Ellstein: HASSIDIC DANCE
This is but one of many examples of American Jewry's general attraction to the cultural and aesthetic parameters of Hassidism and Hassidic folklore, not necessarily related to theological considerations or commitments. That there are numerous pieces of precisely the same title by various American composers is itself evidence of the cultural and aesthetic impact of Hassidism upon the American Jewish imagination, even among circles otherwise bordering on hostility to Hassidic orthodoxy. For neither Ellstein nor his intended audience were Hassidic. Nor does a piece such as this purport to represent faithfully an authentic Hassidic dance ritual as enacted within the various sects' cloistered environments — for those dances, whether joyous or meditative, are deeply religious ceremonies. Rather, the piece captures the general Hassidic dance flavor, within a stylized, even romanticized portrait.
The principal melody, inflected with perceived eastern European folk style, gives Jewish credibility to the piece, but its various modern orchestral gestures and moments of classical development (augmentation, permutation, etc.) raise it to a higher artistic level.
As with the three Weinberg encore pieces recorded here, this Hassidic Dance exhibits a fusion of Hassidic-type (but probably Ellstein's own) melody on traditional models with unrelated klezmer band clarinet effects and idiomatic nuances. In addition, even this small piece shows us a flash of Ellstein the brilliant orchestrator — as well as the potentially classical composer.
Osvaldo Golijov: ROCKETEKYA
Rocketekya was commissioned for the twentieth anniversary of New York City's Merkin Concert Hall. Golijov wrote it for clarinetist David Krakauer, violinist Alicia Svigals, electric violist Martha Mooke, and double bassist Pablo Aslan, who played the premiere in 1998 and are also heard in the present recording. The composer has written the following remarks about the piece:
I was asked to write a celebratory fanfare. But then I thought it would be interesting to write a different sort of celebratory piece, and I had an idea: a shofar blasting inside a rocket—an ancient sound propelled towards the future. So, that is Rocketekya: a shofar blasting its t'ki'a (one of its prescribed pattern calls) inside a rocket. In the middle of its journey, the rocket meets a Latin band in orbit…. I wrote the piece for four musicians I love and admire, and dedicated it to Vicki Margulies, who was the hall's artistic director at the time.
The use of various traditional klezmer band clarinet inflections and timbres gives the piece an overall feeling of a fusion of some of the typical sounds of 19th-century eastern European klezmorim, contemporary Latin rhythms and flavors, and postmodern auras and sensibilities. But despite its futuristic impulse, the klezmer band idioms and emblematic eastern European intervals predominate and permeate the piece.
Neil W. Levin