Kugeltov: Klezmer music opens the St Andrew’s Concert Season

Klezmer music old and new

Robin Perks (violin), Tui Clark (clarinet), Ross Harris (accordion), Malcolm Struthers (double bass)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Monday 8 March 2010 midday

(N.B. Ross Harris has drawn my attention to a mistake and to a couple of other misunderstandings in my review and the review has now been amended.  Wednesday 10 March)

The series of lunchtime and early evening concerts at St Andrew’s opened with a highly diverting concert of Klezmer music – the music of the Jewish cultures of Eastern Europe, whose traditional language is Yiddish, derived from Middle High German, mixed with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slav and Romance languages.

The group’s name, Kugeltov, dervives from Kugel which means ‘ball’ in German. A Kugel is a staple of Jewish cooking and it originally referred to balls of noodle dough. (The programme note included a recipe for ‘Malcolm’s Kugeltov Cake’).

Their music, likewise, echoes these cultures, so lovers of the music of Serbia and Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania, Greece and areas of southern Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus will find much delight.

The series revives one of the original elements of the New Zealand International Arts Festivals: concerts by mainly New Zealand musicians at lunchtime and in the early evening, playing music of all kinds (apart from commercial popular stuff). The concerts were hugely popular from the start and reached their peak in the festivals of 1990 and 1992, under Chris Doig. It is a mystery that festivals in the last decade have so reduced the amount of music generally and turned their backs on these fine opportunities for New Zealand musicians to stand alongside overseas artists in concerts that are cheaper and more informal than the NZIAF itself. They also offered an extra draw-card for visitors from elsewhere who look for things to do during the day.

The musicians offer another example of the way professional Wellington musicians get involved in popular music of all kinds. Two of these players are in the NZSO – Robin Perks and Malcolm Struthers, one in the Vector Wellington Orchestra – Tui Clark, and Ross Harris, who taught  at Victoria University and has other lives as composer and French horn player, not to mention a commitment to Klezmer music.

So the quality of the playing was one of the striking features. Nothing was more striking than the frequent clarinet sallies from Tui Clark, a player of lively brilliance with an uncanny instinct for idiomatic styles rendered with excitement and real delight.

The first piece, by Ross Harris, opened with an exciting, anticipatory, plucked bass intro, followed by squealing clarinet rushes and staccato phrases; accordion and violin soon fleshed it out.

The second medley of three tunes opened with Robin Perks’s perfectly idiomatic gypsy sounding violin, that turned from melancholy to a wild, foot-stamping dance.

Most of the pieces, many consisting of two or three distinct tunes fused in cunning ways, were of genuine folk origin, and ten tunes were by composer/accordionist Ross Harris.

The centre piece was Ross Harris’s Klezmorphology, which was the most extended and took the genre to areas remote from the simple Klezmer, almost losing sight of its origins at times and becoming a piece that may well please conventional chamber music lovers, and there were many at this concert.

The quite large audience clapped along with the infectious final number, the popular Klezmer tune, Hava Nagila. The series has got off to a great start.

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