There is a treasured story about young Johann Sebastian Bach being such a devotee of composer and organist Dietrich Buxtehude that he walked some 250 miles from Arnstadt to Lubeck, Germany, to hear the master play. Whether this tale is completely true or not, it certainly paints a picture of Bach as an acolyte of Buxtehude, or in present-day terms, a “fan.”
You get the impression that composer Wlad Marhulets (born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1986) feels this way about acclaimed clarinetist David Krakauer, and might have legged it for 250 miles to listen to his own musical hero. Instead, Marhulets sent the virtuoso reedman an e-mail, and it was the start of a rich, creative relationship.
Their initial interaction eventually led to the creation of Marhulets’ 2009 “Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet,” a work that recently won the inaugural Azrieli Prize in Jewish Music for the young composer. The generous prize was established by the Canada-based Azrieli Foundation to reward current excellence in the field of Jewish orchestral concert music.
Krakauer will perform “Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet” with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, January 29, in an internationally flavored program titled “Un/Restrained.” The concert also includes Krakauer’s own “Synagogue Wail,” Osvaldo Golijov’s “K’vakarat,” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Opus 110a, an orchestral arrangement of the composer’s Eighth String Quartet by Rudolph Barsai.
Rossen Milanov will conduct the concert, which begins at 4 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 3 p.m., at Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University.
In addition, as part of the PSO’s BRAVO! series of educational programs, Krakauer will lead a master class for student clarinetists on Saturday, January 28, from 2 to 5 p.m. at Hamilton House on the campus of Westminster Choir College in Princeton. (Observation of the class is open to the public, but reservations are required.)
The PSO’s January 29 program also includes young American composer Saad Haddad’s innovative 2015 work, “Manarah.”
Roughly translating to “beacon” in Arabic, “Manarah” is scored for two digitally processed antiphonal trumpets and orchestra. The work features the PSO’s two trumpet players in the left and right balconies, calling back and forth to each other and the rest of the ensemble.
“They serve as pillars nestled high above the ground…like lighthouses beckoning ships safely to their shores,” Haddad (b. 1992) writes in his composition notes. “Both trumpet players are processed live through a software patch I created… which is triggered live onstage through a laptop.”
Through this technology Haddad can explore such elements of traditional Arabic instrumental and vocal music as microtones, glissandi (sliding between notes), and vibrato. He is said to be especially influenced by Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum.
Interestingly, parts of Marhulets’ “Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet” also honor vocal traditions, in this case, the microtonal wailing, droning, and rapid fluctuations of a synagogue cantor.
“It’s such an unusual sound, quite special and interesting,” says Krakauer, speaking by phone from his home in Manhattan. He is also looking forward to performing his “Synagogue Wail,” which he describes as “an encapsulation of my own sound world.”
“It starts out as a klezmer improvisation but then adds extended techniques, which might sound like John Coltrane at times, maybe Jimi Hendrix at others, and then we go into a more traditional piece,” he says. “What’s great about this repertoire, which I’ve played with many orchestras, is that it builds really nice bridges between the genres of classical and world music.”
Composer Marhulets first heard some of the best of Krakauer’s klezmer recordings at age 16, when many teens are deep into their garage rock band or their parents’ (or grandparents’) pop/rock collection of vinyl records.
Instead, the young man became totally immersed in klezmer in general and Krakauer in particular. Marhulets writes: “The discovery of Jewish music as a teenager turned my life around. It inspired me to become a musician and to explore my own roots and culture through music. Since then, I’ve been trying to give back by writing music that is primarily inspired by Jewish culture.”
After sending Krakauer that fateful e-mail as well as a CD of original music, Marhulets traveled to New York, mostly to meet the musician, but also to launch his own career in composition.
“Basically, Wlad came to the United States trying to find me and have a connection,” Krakauer says. “He had been accepted into Juilliard, and although he was only about 20 years old, he had already written a bit of music, which I heard and loved. It was very witty with a little strangeness and was just so amazing; I could tell that Wlad was extraordinary.”
“So I said, ‘write a concerto for me and let’s see what happens,’ which he did,” Krakauer continues. “His teacher (Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer) John Corigliano sent it to Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony, and they premiered it.”
Marhulets has said in interviews that the concerto tells his story, but both the composer and the clarinetist agree that it really, really tells Krakauer’s story.
“It’s a portrait of me in music, and it’s a great piece, so much fun,” Krakauer says. “The way he played with the music, that’s what I do, too. Wlad came up with these traditional klezmer lines but refracted them in a surreal way. I felt like I was looking at myself in the mirror when I played it. I’ve performed it all over the world, but most recently in Qatar.”
“Now Wlad has won this huge prize, and he’s recently signed with (music publisher) Schirmer, which is great for him and for the piece,” he adds. “It’s just a great story overall: he was unknown, a young man, a kid in fact, only 23 when the concerto was completed.”
Born in Manhattan, September 22, 1956, Krakauer moves easily between several musical worlds and has earned accolades as a major voice in classical and jazz, but is also one of the world’s leading interpreters of Eastern European Jewish klezmer music.
Joining the New York-based Klezmatics in 1988, then founding the group Klezmer Madness, Krakauer sees klezmer as his “musical home.”
He has redefined the genre with major appearances at Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress, as well as the BBC Proms in London, the Venice Biennale, and many other noted international venues and festivals.
Sometimes just known as “Krakauer,” he is in demand worldwide as a guest soloist with such ensembles as the Emerson, Orion, and Kronos String Quartets and as a soloist with the Dresden, Seattle, and Detroit symphony orchestras, among many others.
Krakauer’s first instrument was not the clarinet, however. It was the piano. His father, a psychiatrist by profession, was an amateur pianist and singer when David was very young and encouraged piano lessons.
“I played the piano when I was a little kid, but it never really kindled for me. I never took to it,” he says.
Krakauer’s mother was a noted violinist and performer who taught at the Mannes School of Music in New York. So she was knowledgeable enough to realize that, when young David chose an instrument to perform in grade school, around age 10, he was too old for the violin, his first choice.
“She told me I wouldn’t have the reflexes needed for violin, that I should have started around age 3 or 4,” Krakauer says. “She said to try the flute or clarinet instead, so I chose the clarinet.”
“But at the same time, we were listening to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and Darius Milhaud’s ‘The Creation of the World,’ which both had great clarinet solos,” he continues. “Then around age 11, I was listening to Sidney Bechet, a wonderful early jazz clarinetist, and I fell in love with his music — he really makes the clarinet speak. So that sealed the deal for me. I decided to be a musician and a clarinetist.”
Happily, Krakauer has never been rigid about one kind of music over another, always enthusiastic about playing and listening to classical, jazz, and a little of everything in between.
“I was taking classical lessons and playing jazz, doing both at the same time, and loving it,” he says. “In high school (the High School of the Performing Arts), I had an incredible teacher, Leon Russianoff, who would say, ‘play classical, play jazz, do whatever you want.’ He was a great spirit, so I followed that path.”
Russianoff might have been the one to plant the seeds of Krakauer’s love for klezmer. He gave his student arrangements of short, Eastern European-flavored pieces with names like “The Hebrew Dance,” which Krakauer took to instantly.
Krakauer went on to study with Russianoff at the Juilliard, earning his master’s degree there. (He did his undergraduate work at Sarah Lawrence College and the Paris Conservatory.)
He says he wasn’t aware that klezmer was part of his Eastern European heritage until much later in his musical career. Around the same time Krakauer learned that his paternal grandmother was from a small town south of Minsk and then made the connection.
“I was always distanced from my roots because I grew up assimilated in the classical world,” he says. “Somehow I started to listen to klezmer and was really drawn to its sounds. In my 20s I abandoned jazz to focus on my classical career and didn’t get back to improvised music until my 30s, and it was then that I decided to explore the music of my cultural heritage.”
“I figured, yeah, I’ll play klezmer, but I’ll add jazz and create my own style of improvising,” Krakauer says.
One musical side of him even incorporates rhythm & blues, funk, and hip-hop styles, which show in Krakauer’s eclectic side project, Abraham Inc. He formed this group in 2006 with trombonist Fred Wesley, longtime sideman for the late soul man James Brown.
“Fred’s an amazing, amazing musician and wonderful human being,” Krakauer says. “That project has been a total thrill.”
The group has performed all over the world, from the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival in Poland (nicknamed “A Semi-Kosher Woodstock”), to the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
In 2015 Krakauer and the chamber group A Far Cry were nominated for a Grammy Award for the work “Dreams and Prayers” in the category of Best Classical Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
Currently he is on the faculties of Mannes College of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, NYU, and the Bard College Conservatory of Music.
Krakauer lives in New York City with “his partner in life and in music,” Kathleen Tagg. They have the opportunity to tour together nationally and internationally with their electro-acoustic duo project “Breath and Hammer.”
What’s especially interesting about the PSO’s “Un/Restrained” program on January 29 is that it reflects our planetary connection through music — it’s truly “world music.”
Yet, it’s also the sound of the United States, reflecting our vast, rich, and diverse cultural and ethnic influences.
Krakauer agrees, musing that, “It’s hard not to ‘talk politics’ these days,” he says. “But this is so important, this multi-cultural dialogue. I’ve been making a point about exactly this kind of thing; in fact, it’s what I stand for. An attitude of openness and tolerance is so important, especially in the face of the alternative.”
“I think of my grandparents (from Eastern Europe),” he continues. “They came from another country, they looked ‘funny’ and they spoke ‘funny,’ but they became Americans, so my generation and the generations afterward would have a life here.”
Speaking of those grandparents, Krakauer reflects that he unconsciously absorbed their Eastern European speech patterns and patois, and these voices and their idiosyncrasies live on in his performances, especially when he plays klezmer.
“When I first heard and started to play klezmer, on the one hand, it was a whole course of study that I had to pursue — learn the tunes, learn the style and ornamentation, the laws of music, how you inflect and whatnot,” he says.
“On the other hand, it struck me as very familiar, it seemed like something I’d always known,” Krakauer says. “It didn’t sound like ‘Yiddish music,’ it sounded like my grandmother speaking.”
Un/Restrained, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, January 29, 4 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 3 p.m. $25 to $82. For more about Krakauer visit www.davidkrakauer.com. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.
Master class for student clarinetists with David Krakauer, Hamilton House, Westminster Choir College, 101 Walnut Lane, Princeton. Saturday, January 28, 2 to 5 p.m. Observation of the class is free, but reservations are required. www.princetonsymphony.org/events/clarinet-masterclass.