Jewish Culture Festival ignites

This year’s Jewish Culture Festival might be drawing to a close, but enthusiasts of Jewish music will be pleased to discover that a rich and varied array of world-class klezmer and klezmer-inspired musicians will be performing over the final four days.

Given the large scale Jewish migrations since klezmer music first emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, it is hardly surprising that todays’s practitioners display so many different music influences.

Marcelo Moguilevsky and Cesar Lerner, who are performing on Thursday 28 at the Tempel Synagogue, as The Lerner-Moguilevsky Duo are the grandsons of a Russian and a Polish Jew who emigrated to Argentina at the turn of the 20th Century. Naturally, their music makes no attempt to conceal the influence of the tango and Argentian folk music they were exposed to as children.

The Bester Quartet is the latest incarnation of the world-famous Cracow Klezmer Band. Their music reflects their roots (they are all classically trained) and the uniquely experimental atmosphere of downtown New York. Their most ardent fan and one-time mentor is none other than saxophonist, composer and owner of Tzadik Records, John Zorn. They are also playing on June 28 at the Tempel Synagogue.

Also on the Tzadzik label and equally adventurous are Sadawi , a carefully selected mixture of jazz and klezmer specialists who are led by trumpeter, Paul Brody. The music they produce is strongly rooted in tradition, but their unusual instrumentation and inspired arrangements have led John Zorn to claim that they are carving out a new path for klezmer in the 21st century. They appear at Alchemia on June 29.

Since Klezmer music first appeared around the 15th Century, Klezmer musicians (or klezmorim) have traditionally drawn much of their inspiration from the synagogue and in particular the characteristic “call to prayer” delivered by the cantor.

These days, cantors are nearly always graduates of music colleges who have received specialized training, but in the past the qualifications for the post were somewhat different. Prospective candidates needed to be married men with a pleasing appearance and a flowing beard. Most importantly, they needed to have an expressive and charismatic voice capable of conveying a wide range of emotions.

Skilled klezmorim harness the expressive power of the violin, the clarinet and the trumpet, in particular, to replicate the moaning, laughing and weeping effects which are at the heart of all klezmer music.

Music and dancing were considered by the Hasidic Jews of Eastern Europe to be an integral part of their exuberant rituals of worship. Their more conservative cousins in the north, the Misnagdim, protested that such practices were inappropriate. Even today, some orthodox Jews disapprove of the overuse of music and cantors. But the legacy of the early Hasidic Jews lives on in the music of Critical Mass.

Critical Mass, who are led by clarinetist and composer, Daniel Goode, yet another stalwart of the New York downtown scene, aim to make the link between secular and sacred Hasidic music explicit. The group, which features vocalists, clarinet and piano aim to create feelings of ecstatic fervor and zeal outside the confines of organized religion. As is fitting for such a project, audience participation will be encouraged at various points. Critical Mass perform at the Galicja Jewish Muzeum on June 28.

A further highlight of this (as well as previous years’) festivals is the performance in the Tempel Synagogue on June 29 by the Nigunim & Zmiros project of trumpeter, Frank London, vocalist, Lorin Sklamberg and keyboardist and composer, Rob Schwimmer.

Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg together co-founded the important avant-klezmer group, The Klezmatics, but Nigumim & Zmiros draws inspiration from their childhood memories of communal singing around the family dinner table on the Sabbath. Zmiros are traditional poems that are performed to music during and following the three ritual meals. ‘Nigumin’ are wordless vocals performed in religious ceremonies by Hasidic Jews.

For those on a budget, there will be a chance on June 30 to see many of the musicians who have taken part in the festival gathered together on ulica Szeroka in a gesture of solidarity entitled Shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace” or “well-being”. There is no charge for the event.

Also, free of charge are the daily performances between the Isaac and High Synagogues on ulica Ciemna 15 at 5.00 pm. Performers include the Klezmer Trio Quartet and Urszula Makosz.

Finally the customary surprise act is planned for the Concert on The Roof in the middle of Plac Nowy on June 29 at 8.00 pm. Previous guests have included Frank London, but who will appear this year is anyone’s guess. Again, there is no charge for admission.

According to Henry Sapoznik, author of the klezmer bible, The Compleat (sic) Klezmer, once an arrangement has been agreed, “improvising is out.” Yet, there was a huge cross-fertilization between Jewish musicians playing klezmer and improvised jazz during the last century. Master clarinetist, Benny Goodman, known to many as “The King of Swing”, was after all Jewish and many klezmer musicians supplemented their income in the 1920s and 1930s by playing in big bands and other jazz formations

Enthusiasts of improvised music can see some of the most accomplished klezmer musicians in the world spontaneously create in the after hour all-star jam sessions that are being held at Alchemia every weekday at midnight. The final two sessions are being hosted by Eric Stein and Paul Brody on 22 and 23 June respectively. Eric Stein is the leader of Canadian outfit, Beyond the Pale, who performed at the Tempel Synagogue earlier in the week.

At one time, Kazimierz was one of the largest areas of Jewish settlement in the whole of Europe, so it is very apt that the festivities will end on July 1 with performances by two veterans.

First up is Alfred Schreyer, who will be performing a selection of Yiddish songs and pre-war Polish tangos at the Kupa Synagogue.

The Cultural Festival will be rounded off by composer, pianist and conductor, Leopold Kozlowski, who will be performing at the Tempel Synagogue. Considered by many to be a living relic of happier times between the two world wars, he is the nephew of the legendary composer and clarinetist, Naftule Brandwein and is often referred to us the “last klezmer of Galicia”.

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