Jewish Music Flavors a New Production

By Newmark, Judith | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 19, 2013 | Go to article overview

Jewish Music Flavors a New Production


Newmark, Judith, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Maybe you don't know where klezmer music comes from. But you probably know where it went.

Think of the sinuous clarinet solo that pierces Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," right through its swinging heart. Or think of another big hit of the same era, "And The Angels Sing." Ziggy Elman's trumpet is practically speaking in Yiddish.

In America, the clarinet became the signature instrument of klezmer, a musical style that Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe brought with them to New York's Lower East Side, to Chicago's Maxwell Street, to neighborhoods around the country where Jews celebrated weddings and other happy occasions; klezmer is typically dance music. The violin, bass and other instruments play important parts, too.

But all the instruments drew on the cantorial tradition of strictly vocal music. Even though klezmer music is secular, the "emisseh" klezmer sound can wrench the heart or give wings to the soul just like the human voice.

Henry Palkes thinks that quality is essential. "When you hear that expressive clarinet, or the violin line that tugs at your heart, it affects you because it changes your rhythm," said Palkes. A musician who has worked in every style from classical ("my first love") to country (touring with Merle Haggard) to musical theater (which earned him his Kevin Kline Awards for musical direction), he is musical director of "Shlemeil the First," the klezmer musical that just opened at the New Jewish Theatre.

"We all breathe in and out, in and out," Palkes said. "But music all music, not only klezmer can take us out of our comfort zone with a different rhythm. That's why we say music can take our breath away. In a sense, it really does.

"Klezmer came out of the shtetl and developed into the musical spring of Jewish life in America, with all its pain and joy."

For centuries, many of the best klezmer musicians were classically trained and widely respected. (Today, violinist Itzhak Perlman enjoys klezmer and has performed with such "klezmer revival" stars as Andy Statman, the Klezmatics and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.) They also were experts at improvisation, a technique that Palkes says extends into jazz.

Although klezmer had a big effect on American music, especially swing, it had little influence on musical theater. "This is show not 'Fiddler on the Roof,'" he cautioned. (Still, "Fiddler" composer Jerry Bock knew what he was doing when he tucked a little klezmer into "The Wedding Dance.") "It's not a big, epic musical. …

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