Upcoming Klezmer Programs

by Arlene Stolnitz

On Monday, December 17 at 7:30 p.m., Sarasota will be privileged with the appearance of renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman in an evening devoted to klezmer music.  The program entitled In the Fiddler’s House (A Night of Klezmer) will be presented at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and will feature special guest artists, including the Klezmer Conservatory Band.  The Perlman Music Program has invited well known Sarasota/Venice lecturer Baila Miller to present a program on History of Klezmer Music to Modern Jazz on November 1 from 2:00-4:00 at the Federation Building.      

     Coincidentally, during the past summer, I travelled to Upstate New York for a family reunion.  I always knew I had come from a family of musicians but, until that weekend, I hadn't realized my European born grandparents and their children were a family of klezmer musicians.  In an early column, I wrote about klezmer music as an art form.  My intention to write about klezmer music again came at a particularly opportune time!

     The term “klezmer’’ comes from the Hebrew words “klei” (vessel) and “zemer" (song). “Klezmer” literally means “Instrument of song”.  In Eastern Europe the word “klezmer” referred to the traditional instrumental music of Yiddish speaking people of Eastern Europe (Ashkenaz, Hebrew for German) whose origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages.  Often played at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other joyous occasions, klezmer had its origins in the countries of Eastern Europe and was widely influenced by the Roma or gypsy population.  Violin, clarinet and accordion were used to create the distinctive sounds that we identify as klezmer. These instruments were popular because they were easily transported by klezmer musicians as they traveled from village to village playing for weddings and other community events. Years later in America, klezmer had a huge impact on contemporary jazz music.  Many Jewish American composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland were influenced by klezmer sounds heard during their youth. The opening notes of “Rhapsody in Blue” are a nod to the klezmer clarinet.  Even some clarinet stylings of swing jazz bandleaders Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw can be interpreted as having been derived from klezmer.

      According to Miller, “The history of Klezmer is full of surprises because it is rooted in 1800’s European Nationalism, regional pride and individual identity. There is much more than meets the eye. Its history is long, deep and wide. Music is the soul of a nation. It reflects a nation’s, tears, joys, fears and hopes.  As such, it mirrors a culture’s humanity. Klezmer can be enjoyed as the folk music of the Jewish people, but its unique sound in the mid-1880s reflected cultural changes surfacing in Europe that focused on dissemination of democratic ideals.”

     Miller, well known lecturer in the Humanities in the Sarasota area, started her career as a social worker. In later years she pursued her interest in Art Appreciation and today presents college level courses exploring the role of literature, paintings, architecture, sculpture, cinema and photography, as well as orchestral and operatic influences.

     Born in Poland in the 1950’s, her family immigrated to Israel when she was six.  At the age of nine, her family moved to Memphis, TN., where they were sponsored by a wealthy family member.  Miller has taught at Road Scholar International, Longboat Key Education Center, Venice Art Center, Historic Spanish Point, Venice Performing Arts Center and the Ringling College of Art and Design. Under the name Miller Music and Fine Arts Programs, her lectures are received with great acclaim in the community. 

     Our community is indeed fortunate to have this great artist and well known lecturer expand our appreciation and enjoyment of this unique art form.