Wellington Chamber Music
KUGELTOV KLEZMER QUARTET
with Philip Green (clarinet)
Kugeltov Klezmer: Rebecca Struthers (violin) / Ross Harris (accordion) / Tui Clark (clarinet) / Malcolm Struthers (double bass)
Ilott Theatre, Wellington
Sunday 24th June, 2012
I felt in a bit of a quandary regarding this concert, torn as I was between feelings of unease through wanting someone else to do this review, and curiosity at experiencing some of this “klezmer” music for myself. I did do a little bit of exploratory research – not too much – so that I’d have a notion, however vague, of what I was about to hear. So, I found out that Klezmer music grew from the desire of Jewish communities to provide music at celebratory events, particularly at weddings (I read one droll remark from a commentator that there wasn’t much difference between a Jewish wedding and a burial except that the former had musicians (klezmorim) in attendance!). This music drew from a wide variety of sources, and (as time went on) assimilated elements from different cultures and diverse musical styles.
Interestingly, these “klezmorim”, itinerant Jewish troubadours, were at first regarded as little more than vagrants on the social ladder – in fact, the term “klezmer” was used for a long time as an insult, one akin to being called a criminal – though their usefulness on occasions that seemed to call for music became more and more valued. If one was a klezmer, one was an untrained musician, unable to read music but able to play by ear. As with jazz musicians in the West, the status of the klezmorim has considerably advanced to the extent of their being regarded as true artists, especially with a recent revival worldwide of the genre.
A glance through the programme notes for each of the items gave one a sense of the ease and fluidity with which the music has taken on aspects of different influences from various places, both East and West. Implied as well is the improvisatory element in performance, one which I imagine would enable performers of klezmer music to give personalized expression to their views of and concerns with things in their world.
Here, I didn’t pick up on any such threads of focus in the concert, other than the desire by the performers to present a number of attractive and enjoyable examples of the world of this music. What did come across throughout the afternoon were evocations of ritual, of gatherings of people, and of symbolic gestures. At the concert’s beginning Rebecca Struthers entered strumming the strings of her violin, followed by clarinettists Tui Clark and Phil Green, simulating a kind of processional whose mode was suggested repeatedly by various pieces in the concert. The program notes spoke of wedding ritual, which a number of pieces evoked , three of which were similarly entitled Kale Bazetsn (Seating the Bride), as did Firn di mekhutonim aheym (no translation, but the title suggesting the entry of the bridal couple’s parents).
In a number of instances the emotion of the music was palpable, such as Rebecca Struthers’ violinistic depiction of a near-hysterical bride in the first Kale Bazetsn, with Tui Clark’s clarinet chiming in for good measure, the grotesquerie of it all underlined by Ross Harris’s somewhat manic piece Narish (translated as “Silly”) being played as a kind of add-on (virtuoso playing from all concerned). Rather more dignified, though just as deeply-felt, was the sequence beginning with Vuhin gaitzu? (“Where are you going?) the flattened fifth at the piece’s beginning commented on by Ross Harris as being particularly mournful in effect, and compounded by the unison of violin and clarinet, whose timbres then by turns gave the upper reaches of the melody almost unbearable anguish, the rhythm weighted and infinitely patient in effect.
In the second “Seating of the Bride” item, Bazetsn di Kale, consisting of two transcriptions of traditional tunes by Jale Strom, the music was again a vehicle for displays of bridal weeping, the first, on Rebecca Struthers’ violin sweet and comely, the second on two clarinets raw and raucous – a more animated section toward the end featured skillful work by both clarinetists.
As with “normal” chamber music, as well as jazz, the sense of the musicians enjoying their collaboration was nicely unequivocal – in Sun, a piece adapted by a Polish Klezmer group and borrowed for this occasion, the asymmetrical 7/4 rhythm produced an interaction which had the feel of a “jam session”, the spontaneity of it all underlined by a sudden counting-call of “one-two-three-four!”, at which the piece jumped forwards excitedly, keeping the rhythmic angularity but at a faster pace. Phil Green used, I think, an alto saxophone in this piece, the timbre and colour contributing to the music’s distinctiveness.
At halftime I found myself musing on what I’d heard thus far, amongst other things in regard to the playing of Phil Green and Rebecca and Malcolm Struthers (the latter playing a double-bass), each sounding right into the idiom of this music. It struck me that these musicians were displaying executant skills they would rarely, if ever, be called upon to employ in their “other” musical lives involving membership of the NZSO (and, of course, Tui Clark, the other clarinetist, was no stranger to orchestral work as well). I couldn’t help reflecting how ironic it was that these musicians’ energies and impulses of vital and colorful music-making seemed so overlaid in a normal orchestral setting. It didn’t seem altogether right that these elements should be allowed to sink more-or-less below the closely-monitored oceanic surface of corporate music-making.
But these somewhat contentious thoughts were short-lived, as they were peripheral to the real business in hand – and the concert’s second half gave as much delight as did the first – beginning with the ‘serious fun” of Ross Harris’s own Vaygeshray, an adaptation of a movement from his Four Laments for Solo Clarinet, which I had heard premiered in 2010, and was here played in a two-clarinet version by Phil Green and Tui Clark. This was music coursing through veins as life-blood, and meeting all kinds of stimuli, bringing about both adulteration and purification – focused, and concentrated, and to the point.
It was an interesting foil for the dance that followed – Makonovetski’s Zhok, a traditional Roumanian dance (a “zhok” is a 3/4 dance, similar, we were told, to the Yiddish hora). Compared with the quiet circumspection of Ross Harris’s piece, this throbbed with a kind of dignified emotion, the dance coloured by a kind of “weeping” sound, with a cadenza-like episode for the first clarinet and some recitative-like interaction between the second clarinet and solo violin, before the return of the processional – again, a sense of ritual was predominant.
To mention all the pieces would be to write tiresomely for pages and pages, though there were things that couldn’t be passed over completely – the almost schizophrenic contrast between the madap Voglenish (Wandering) and the following Melancolia, for example. Both were written by Ross Harris, the first delightfully Keystone-Cops-like, with lovely “bending” and “curdling” of tones from both clarinet and violin, and finishing unexpectedly with a witty snipped-off ascending phrase from the violin; and the second a kind of “sad clown” portrait, the music and playing filled with bemusement and pathetic gesturing.
The final bracket of pieces featured some virtuso playing from all concerned, the rapid-fire Breaza ca pe Arges (the names of two towns in Roumania) demanding energy and agility from both clarinets, a short, sharp and exciting Hora-Staccato-like Rukhelleh, and a full-on, closely-meshed piece Loz’n Gang (translated as “To set off”) requiring great precision and poise, and finishing with a quiet disappearing phrase. The audience was, however, merciless in its appreciation, and demanded an encore, which was forthcoming. Its title I didn’t get, but it certainly turned out to be a whirling dervish of a dance, driven by modulatory swerves from the accordion in places, and winding up with a satisfyingly concerted flourish.