Klezmer revived and recontextualized
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 21, 2004) – Thursday night’s klezmer concert at Club Helsinki began appropriately enough with the call of the cantor, as interpreted by the phenomenal trumpeter, Susan Watts. Klezmer derives its characteristic vocal quality – the achy, bent, hiccupy notes – from cantorial music, and Watts – a scion of the Philadelphia-based Hoffman family klezmer dynasty, and a member of the Mikveh, one of two groups that performed – has clearly internalized the cantorial voice and found unique ways to replicate them on her instrument.

She ended her rubato call to prayer with declamatory phrases that echoed the patterns of the High Holy Day shofar, and her Mikveh bandmates, including fiddler Alicia Svigals, accordionist Lauren Brody, vocalist Adrienne Cooper and bassist Heather Versace joined in on a happy klezmer dance tune called a freylekh.

Watts’s playing was the revelation of an evening that included world-class performances by the other members of Mikveh in their Berkshire debut, followed by a riotously entertaining closing set by New York-based outfit Golem, which specializes in reviving both well-known and obscure Yiddish folk chestnuts and juicing them up with contemporary accents. The crowd at Helsinki dined appropriately enough on cabbage, stuffed peppers and borscht while the musicians recreated an evening of entertainment that evoked bittersweet nostalgia for life in the Old Country, a world lost to modernization, assimilation and, finally, to the horrors of the Shoah.

But this wasn’t an evening to dwell on what was lost, but rather to reclaim a rich legacy. The members of Mikveh did so by mining the Yiddish folk repertoire for songs reflecting women’s concerns, or where they don’t already, by recontextualizing them so that they do. Thus, for example, a song originally written by Bronx poet Beyle Schaecter-Gottesman for her nephew’s bar mitzvah became (in Yiddish) “Sorele’s Bas Mitsve.”

In the hands of Mikveh, the joyous celebration of a young woman’s rite of passage into adulthood was given almost a Renaissance feel, the violin, accordion and trumpet playing polyphonic lines not ordinarily found in mostly monophonic klezmer. This chamber-klezmer approach, which included Cooper’s well-schooled lead vocals and harmonies by Brody, Watts and Svigals, lent an air of beauty and dignity to the music that elevated it at no sacrifice of its earthy qualities.

Watts also demonstrated her skills as a vocalist, finding affinity between cantorial-style singing, including slurs and bends, and jazz, on a virtuosic rendition of the Yiddish swing classic “Joseph, Joseph,” which included a soaring fiddle solo by Svigals. On another number about fertility, Brody, who is also an expert in Bulgarian music, led the group through its paces in four-part village harmony.

Golem capped off the evening with its hypercharged blend of Yiddish folk and theater music with hints of punk and rock. Where Mikveh’s approach was stately and immaculate, Golem was loose and organic, more like a Gypsy band playing in a town square than a chamber ensemble entertaining the local nobility.

The tradition makes room for both, and on favorites like “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn” and “Rumania, Rumania.” and on more obscure tunes, including a series devoted to memories of shtetl life, the group flaunted its assets, including the quirky personalities of lead singers Annette Ezekiel and Aaron Diskin and the Gypsy/old-time fiddling of Alicia Jo Rabins.

[Editor’s note: Golem will be performing at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington on August 22 in a mini-klezmer festival featuring a talk by Seth Rogovoy, the author of “The Essential Klezmer.”]

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 22, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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