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Klezmerizing the BPO


Szymon Goldberg

The mighty Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has, over the years, included and featured many Jewish conductors and soloists. Many superb instrumentalists of Jewish origin, including current concertmaster, the American Noah Bendix-Balgley, have graced the orchestra’s ranks. And Jewish composers, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Gershwin, Weill, and others, appear very frequently on the orchestra’s concert programs. Just recently, the Berliner’s Boston appearance [my review HERE] was led by a Jewish conductor, Kiril Petrenko, with Bendix-Balgley as featured soloist in a Mozart concerto, and a symphony by a Jewish composer, Eric Korngold, as the evening’s centerpiece.

Last weekend’s late-night concert in Berlin, however, streamed live on the orchestra’s digital concert hall (soon as an archive recording on the same site HERE) broke new ground, as a chamber orchestra, with Bendix-Balgley as director and dazzling violin soloist, delved directly into Yiddish folklore-derived material, playing up a storm, and sending a large audience into joyful ecstasy in the process.

Klezmer music, the basis for most of the evening’s performances, is a distinct musical dialect of Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, perpetuated in earlier decades via oral tradition of a minstrel class (the Klezmorim). The repertoire is, at its center, celebratory, incorporating elements of Central European popular music (waltzes, mazurkas, polkas) into an earlier, modal language related to Turkish, Greek, and Arabic scales and maqam. A most typical klezmer mode, the freylich (fröhlich, happy) incorporates the augmented second (A – G sharp – F natural – E, for a tune based on E), similar to the hejaz mode in Turkish and Arabic music. (Think “Hava Nagila” if this discussion is a bissel too technical for you…). Similarly, the rich repertoire of klezmer ornaments, melodic bends and squeezes evokes, and is probably derived from, Turkish and Middle Eastern practice.

Before the concert’s Fröhlichkeit could begin, however, a somber and necessary memorial piece, Yizkor, by Hungarian-Israel composer and violist Ödön Pártos (1907-1977) opened this evening. It is a rhapsodic, brooding, work, evoking Jewish cantorial music, much of it in hejazi modes, for solo viola and orchestral ensemble. Pártos’ writing reminded this listener at points of passages in Ernest Bloch’s 1916 work, Schelomo, for violoncello and orchestra. Principal violist Amihai Grosz, a magnificent soloist, drew an astonishing range of colors from his instrument, inevitably touching on the tragic memories looming in the background during any celebration of Jewish culture in modern-day Germany..

Two short duet pieces, for oboe and bassoon, and for violin and viola, by the distinguished German-American composer Samuel Adler (b. 1928), who was also the orchestrator of Bendix-Balgley’s Fidl-Fantazye. A Klezmer Concerto, the centerpiece of this program, followed the Partos work. Following these performances, the soloists pointed towards the audience where, presumably, the now-elderly Adler sat.

Scored for a chamber orchestra, Bendix-Balgley’s very enjoyable Fantazye is not, strictly speaking, a fantasia. It is, rather, formally structured, as a classic, 19th-century three-movement concerto, fast-slow-fast, complete with flashy cadenzas at the usual places. It tips the hat here and there to 20th-century modernism, but is basically a straight-on celebration of the klezmer ethos, as mediated via this concert hall, art-music setting. The composer-soloist, who grew up with klezmer music in his ears (see our earlier interview with him in these pages HERE) took to the piece like a duck to water. As a complement to his virtuosity, some of the Berliner first desk players had chances here and there at playing Yiddishe licks, although not even the awesome Stephan Dorr can make the French horn sound like a klezmerish solo instrument. Part of the pleasure of viewing the performance as a live stream was the chance to glimpse the players smiling and nodding to each other as the music unfolded. Their visible enjoyment became a part of the overall experience.

Noah Bendix-Balgley and Andraž Golob play Happy Nigun (Monika Rittershaus photo)

Andraž Golob, who recently joined the Berlin orchestra as bass clarinetist, was the featured soloist and arranger of the penultimate piece, called Happy Nigun. The young Golob, of Slovenian origin, turns out to be an explosive klezmer clarinetist; his quasi-orgiastic, high-register wails and cries elicited cheers from the near-capacity audience. A favorite klezmer repertory piece, the Odessa Bulgar, arranged and led by Bendix-Balgley, and featuring the characteristic “Bulgarian” rhythmic pattern of 3 plus 3 plus 2 ended the program on a high, jubilant note, and was encored. (Footnote: for the technically challenged, you can hear that bulgarisch beat on the 1939 Benny Goodman recording, “And the Angels Sing,” just before the frelyach trumpet solo).

Jubilant indeed was the event as a whole, life-affirming and even death-defying. The memory of the Jews expelled from the orchestra in 1933, including the concertmaster Szymon Goldberg, and of the once-independent Berlin Philharmonic’s subsequent career, 1933-1945, as the Reichsorchester, the official, public face of Nazi arts policy, is not to be effaced. The film clips of Wilhelm Fürtwangler leading the orchestra in Beethoven and Richard Strauss before the Third Reich higher-ups, with gigantic swastika flags adorning the hall, witnessing the prostitution of great art to a project of absolute evil, will be viewed forever.

And so for some of us, amidst the laughter and rejoicing, came tears. This is, I believe, as it should be. The wonderful musicians who brought this milestone event into being remind us resolutely of the complexity of human history, even as they show us, like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, the hopeful dream of a better world.

Joel Cohen is director of Camerata Mediterranea and music director emeritus of The Boston Camerata. With The Boston Camerata, he has recorded two CD anthologies of early Jewish Music, and with the Camerata Mediterannea a program of medieval Spanish Cantigas, in close collaboration with an Arabo-Andalusian orchestra in Fez, Morocco.

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