Klezmerata Fiorentina Slideshow

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Deeper Side of Klezmer

SO, I guess this is how a Kiev-born, Curtis-educated klezmer violinist/classical violist, who lives in Florence, Italy and can't spell in English suddenly becomes a blogger: gets in front of his Mac and starts writing into cyberspace! Who are you, my unknown readers? How did you get to this page and will you manage to find your way here again? Would my musings about things that interest me also interest or amuse you? I guess I'll find out soon enough!

As this is my very first entry, I will write about two things that are fundamentally important for me: being Jewish and being a Jewish musician. Most of the Russian Jews who grew up in the USSR in the second half of the XX century know almost nothing about our religion (as all religious education was more or less forbidden), eat pork, speak no Hebrew (unless they are now in Israel) or Yiddish (unless they become ultra-orthodox in Brooklyn) and are often labeled Russians (or, even better, Ukrainians) if they happen to live outside Mother Russia. We are nevertheless Jews, just as blacks are blacks and Asians are Asians, or as Italians are Italians. From birth onwards, it was entered in the blank under natsionalnost (nationality, but in this case best translated as ethnicity) on all forms and official papers in Russia. Back in 1977, when flying into the US and I had to fill out my first immigration form, I was very surprised to see that the US Government also wanted to know my nationality. And so with trembling hand, but defiantly, I scribbled: JEW. In vain, a stewardess tried to persuade me to write: Russian. I knew I was a Jew and neither could nor wanted to change that. "Why can't we be just HUMAN; why all these divisions?" you might ask. I often think about it, about all the blood and strife that humanity could avoid were it to be happily reunited and blended together by the same Father in Heaven who divided it once at that Babel building site. But then, what about biodiversity, what about the simple fun of the multitude of colors, languages, outlandish beliefs, dances, traditions and myths by which all of our different human tribes live and die?! And what about music? I honestly believe, however banal it may sound, that each people/tribe (and I tend to think of us as a tribe) best expresses its collective soul through sound and rhythm. That is why a current discussion on the net about whether there is such a thing as Jewish music seems so bizarre to me.

We Jews did not create many material proofs of our physical presence on this earth for the last three thousand years. Who can compare us to those great ancient builders: the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, or to medieval and renaissance Italians? We did not paint or sculpt much either, all the way up to the beginning of XX century. But from the dawn of our existence we, collectively as a people, thought and wrote and read and interpreted our writings, making that study and interpretation the highest purpose of our spiritual and intellectual life. Music became our only emotional and artistic outlet. We always created it and played it: from the time of the first Temple to the present day, Jews made for some of the best musicians, wherever they lived (many Levantine Jews, for example, excelled in the performance of Turkish and Arab classical music). The only problem is that we know only about those who managed to get out of our tribal ghetto and into the surrounding world. I always like to point out that the majority of renowned, great Russian performers of the XX century are Jews who were first graduates of the main Russian conservatories, which provided the only form of higher education available to them in Imperial Russia and the most accessible one in the Soviet Union. But would it be unreasonable to deduce that this pool of outstanding musical talent had always existed, largely unknown by the outside world and unrecorded (though popularly recognized) by the Jews themselves? And if it had, could it be that the music they performed would match, in its emotional depth and sophistication, their great technical ability? If you listen to the recordings of the best hazzanim (the synagogue singers) of the beginning of the XX century you will see that they can be favorably compared to the opera stars of their time (most of the hazzanim did not pass to the opera stage, though, because of the level of prestige and financial success their work in the synagogues afforded them.) They performed miracles of vocal virtuosity while interpreting traditional, modal, Jewish musical material with truly heartbreaking emotional intensity. I am sure the same would apply to the best of Jewish traditional professional instrumentalists who performed for centuries all throughout the Pale of Settlement before the conservatories were opened to a whole generation of young Jewish prodigies in the second half of the XIX century. Unfortunately, since the first recordings were made only twenty years after this event, we will never be able to know for sure about how these people really played; we can only read about it in the memoirs and in Yiddish literature of the time.

What we can do, though, is to attempt to interpret traditional, instrumental, musical material available to us (e.g. the great Beregovsky collection) as unwritten improvised art music rather then as simple, peasant folk dances. I have nothing against folk dances, but one has to remember that the music of the Jews, as well as the music of the Gypsies, was never divided into these European categories (serious, light, folk). This music was played by professionals for all the social strata of Jewish society that were often present at the same event, and dances constituted only a part of such performances. These dances did not necessarily resemble those you can see now at an average American bar mitzvah or wedding. I was lucky enough still to see great solo dancers at some Ukrainian Jewish weddings, who could, encircled by a cheering crowd, successfully imitate virtuoso cossack performers. We are talking about an improvised show with quite complex and subtle music accompanying it. Mostly though, people needed music not to dance to, but to cry and laugh with, music to be played softly, directly in front of them at their table, to each his own favorite tune that spoke directly to the soul. More tears and smiles (both together!) would bring more money and honor (kuved) to the musicians.

It is this kind of music that we try to recreate (create?) with Klezmerata Fiorentina. I guess it is our answer to the post-Klezmer trend: let's first try to get to the deeper side of the klezmer tradition. Believe me, it exists! One has only to look at an old melody and not so much play it as say it in the right way. My grandma, Tsiva, of blessed memory, used to tell me: "To play our music, your fiddle must speak af Yiddish, and talk about life." Now, sometimes my instrument is tempted to sing like an Italian prima donna, or run like a Gypsy virtuoso, or swing, or rock. But then, I remember my wise, old babushka and try to make it just speak. Because, trust me, she knew what she was talking about.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

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To Our DEAR Fans!!

To Our Dear Fans,
First of all, we would like to thank all of you for your wonderful support.  Those who heard us in LA, we appreciate your kind words; we had such a great time there and hope to return to the States soon!

Upon returning to Florence, we've been swept up in a flurry of activities connected with our Teatro del Maggio.

Klezmerata Fiornetina has a busy schedule.  This week, we've been working on a brand new program which will be performed on Friday, February 27th at a private concert for international dignitaries who are coming to Florence for the opening of the new Ukrainian Consulate.  We were asked to play our re-interpretation of Ukrainian folk songs.  Igor has a great collection of them (most are very old, from 1600-1700) and we're having great fun transforming them into interesting instrumental pieces.  We'll try to record the program and make it available to you on the net.

Keep listening and spread the word....KLEZMERATA FIORENTINA!

With Warm Regards,
Riccardino, Riccardone, Francesco and Igor

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What is Klezmer Music?

What is Klezmer music? Nowadays it refers to a generic brand of ethnic music, which could be Moldavian, gypsy, or vaguely east European. For the most part rhythmic and danceable, and sometimes also sung in an often incomprehensible Yiddish, this genre has an almost universal appeal – it fascinates, makes feet tap, and evokes a storybook past of the imaginary and exotic folk that created it.

For me, it is something altogether different: the music of my family. It is the music that in the Ukraine of my childhood one could hear neither on radio nor in concert halls, but only in our homes during celebrations. Those were the homes and celebrations of survivors of the Catastrophe, people crushed by their losses but still incredulous and overjoyed at being alive. This was their music that miraculously survived along with them. When they danced, when they sang those strangely oriental-sounding melodies, they managed to transmit a sense of immense pain and, at the same time, an equally immense joy of life that has ever since represented for me the true essence of Jewish music.

For centuries in the Yiddish world of east European Jews, music other than folk songs could only be heard either in the synagogue, where one listened to the ancient art of religious chant or khasanut, or at celebrations such as weddings. In both cases, the performers were professional musicians: the synagogue singers, khasanim, possessed not only a profound knowledge of a centuries-old musical tradition, but were often great Talmudic scholars, and the klezmorim, wedding musicians, not always as respected and learned, but well-liked and very popular. Medieval German Rabbis considered the latter to be nothing more than useless and even dangerous clowns who distracted people from serious contemplation of the Exile and from the tranquil and somber life led while in attendance of the advent of the Messiah. The people, though, loved the klezmorim and needed them. Some famous musicians, thanks to their extraordinary ability to make their instruments laugh and cry, were followed and celebrated like pop stars. With the appearance of Chasidism, that great movement of Jewish spiritual renewal that swept Ukraine, Byelorussia and Poland in the middle of the eighteenth century, klezmorim acquired a certain respectability even in religious circles. Like prayer, according to the Chasidic Masters, music can become a powerful instrument of redemption if performed with proper intention. And so, even dances played at Chasidic weddings became sacred dances.

Klezmorim along with Roma, the only professional musicians in the vast territories of Ukraine, Bessarabia, and Byelorussia, often played for non-Jewish audiences, developing a vast repertoire of pieces that belonged to other traditions. That is why it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a klezmer melody from a Moldavian, Greek, or Ukrainian tune. The real difference lies not in the notes but in the interpretation. The instruments must speak Yiddish, our language of the Exile. They must speak of boundless pain and, at the same time, of boundless hope and the joy of life. That’s the right way—“Ot azoi !” as my grandmother used to say, and then would sing to me and sing…

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KLEZMERATA FIORENTINA: Fifteen Variations On the Theme of Life