Alicia Svigals makes klezmer violin sing
by Seth Rogovoy

(SPENCERTOWN, N.Y., December 21, 2003) – Klezmer music has made a long, roundabout journey from its origins in the Yiddish world of 19th-century Eastern European shtetls to New World concert stages. Along the way, the music has changed and adapted, picking up influences from a variety of sources and styles, but always maintaining its characteristic essence, the distinctive sounds and modes of Ashkenazic prayer music and Hasidic melodies.

For the last 20 years, violinist Alicia Svigals has been at the forefront of reviving Old World klezmer and making it speak to New World audiences. With the group The Klezmatics, which she co-founded, the music reached thousands of younger listeners attracted by their rock-group-like presentation, even though the music adhered closely to the traditional forms.

On her own as a solo performer, and as reflected in her sold-out concert at the Spencertown Academy on Saturday night, Svigals has dug deeper into the tradition, in no small way reconstructing the sound of the Old World as it might have been, and coming up with a neo-traditional program that is as resonant of life in the shtetl as the stories of Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Performing in a duet format with tsimblist Pete Rushefsky – himself one of the premiere musicians on his instrument – much like what might have been heard in a small town or village in Ukraine or Moldova 150 or 200 years ago, Svigals offered a set of melodies drawn from Hasidic tradition, from early-20th century klezmer recordings, and from field recordings and transcriptions of melodies still being played in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s, as notated by the ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski.

Svigals also offered several of her own compositions written in the style of the Old World melodies, and except for their classical symmetry and exquisite proportion, a listener would be hard put to tell the difference.

More than anything, Svigals has mastered the unique klezmer style and approach of playing the violin. At first, it was almost jarring to hear the violin being played as if her instrument possessed a set of notes completely different from the ones you ordinarily hear on the instrument. But then your ears adjusted and became accustomed to the unusual pitches, the bent shapes, the odd microtones and the unexpected harmonies that sang eloquently of life “on the margins of the edge of the outside,” as Svigals described it.

Rushefsky was a deft accompanist, providing the settings with their harmonic bed and driving rhythms and occasionally steering the melodies on his own. To call his instrument the Jewish hammered dulcimer is to do it an injustice; like Svigals, he has found a way to make his strings resonate with a timeless quality that transported listeners back to a gone but not forgotten world.

Svigals was a lively soloist, performing most of her numbers in suites much as they would have been heard originally. Some were reflective melodies meant for setting a mood, others were processionals whose origins were in the highly-choreographed rituals of the Old World wedding ceremony, and several were good, old-fashioned dance tunes that had the audience tapping their toes and clapping along.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 22, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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