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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 8,

1999. All rights reserved.

Klezmer! Pass the Seltzer

For a musical genre to flourish, scorn is a serious

hindrance. Oblivion may be even worse. Both scorn and oblivion have

fallen upon klezmer music in the United States during the last

century.

Klezmer originated in medieval Europe, where bands of itinerant

musicians

went from town to town playing for festivals and special events. By

the 19th century klezmer music had become a well-developed musical

style, drawing on both Jewish and non-Jewish sources. In America,

the tradition gradually faded. Immigrant Jews sought to blend into

their new culture, and klezmer music, until its revival in the 1970s,

was first denigrated, and then forgotten, according to Hankus Netsky,

founder and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band (KCB).

Netsky’s 11-member KCB appears at New Brunswick’s State Theater

Wednesday,

December 15, in a program that includes medieval Jewish folk tunes,

Yiddish theater music, and American jazz. Since its renaissance about

30 years ago, the catchiness of the latest version of klezmer music

has endeared itself to audiences not only in America, but also in

Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

On the brink of the klezmer renaissance in the early 1970s,

"nobody

knew what klezmer was," Netsky says in a telephone interview from

his Massachusetts home. "It was a pejorative word for professional

dance music players. You wouldn’t call yourself klezmer. You would

call someone else klezmer." Although several of the older members

of Netsky’s family had played in klezmer groups, they didn’t bother

introducing klezmer to Netsky, who was born in 1955. "They didn’t

teach me about this stuff when I was growing up," he says. "I

grew up with jazz and gospel. They saw klezmer as something that had

vanished."

Then, suddenly, in the early l970s, interest in klezmer surfaced.

"About half a dozen of us were getting interested in klezmer at

the same time, unbeknownst to each other," says Netsky. "We

all chanced on klezmer collections on 78s. It was in the air."

As a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1974, Netsky

started doing research on klezmer music. By 1978 he was on the

faculty,

and starting to organize klezmer jam sessions. "It was sort of

backwards," he says. "I wanted to do a doctorate, and instead,

I founded a band."

"I was inspired by Mick Maloney, who was responsible for the

revival

of Celtic music," says Netsky. A professor at the University of

Pennsylvania, Maloney invited a group, including Netsky, to his house

in 1978, and taught them Celtic songs.

Within two years, forces led by Netsky gave their first klezmer

concert.

"I was teaching contemporary improvisation," Netsky says.

"I’m still teaching it. Participants in the course were game for

anything. It was an informal group of students and professors with

a lot of talented people; some of them later founded their own groups.

We thought we were going to do one concert. We called the concert

the Klezmer Conservatory Band. It was a joke. Klezmorim didn’t go

to conservatories."

"After the concert, the audience response was greater than I

thought

it would be," says Netsky. "The crowd went wild. Suddenly

we had some gigs. It was all grass roots. It had nothing to do with

marketing. When we heard that Garrison Keillor’s `Prairie Home

Companion’

was coming to Boston, we sent them a tape of our first concert, made

on a little hand-held tape recorder. The Klezmer Conservatory Band

appeared on Keillor’s show for the first time in October, 1981, and

has been on the show six or seven times since.

In 1990 KCB made its debut tour abroad, performing in

Germany and Poland. A PBS television special called "In the

Fiddler’s

House," with violinist Itzhak Perlman, was filmed in Krakow,

Poland,

and New York. After the PBS show "In the Fiddler’s House"

went on the road, appearing in major concert venues including

Wolftrap,

Radio City Music Hall, and the Ravinia Festival. Netsky documents

the changing attitudes about klezmer over a period of 20 years.

"In

the early days when I would call and ask about klezmer, people would

say, `Are you crazy?’ After we played with Itzhak Perlman for

audiences

of 10,000, strangers started to emerge and say `Boy, do I have a story

for you!’"

Netsky, now 44, was born in Philadelphia. On his maternal side, the

family was sprinkled with musicians, many of them in the klezmer

tradition.

"My mother’s side of the family had the musicians," Netsky

says. His grandfather and an uncle played in klezmer orchestras in

the 1920s. An uncle, Harold Karr, composed for Broadway shows,

especially

for those starring Ethel Merman. The song "We Belong to the Mutual

Admiration Society" is one of his creations. Other uncles played

in pickup wedding bands. One played trumpet; another, clarinet.

"My

mother wasn’t trained in music," Netsky says. "If she was

a guy she would have been playing music."

Netsky describes his parents as unmusical. "They did nothing,"

he says. "The kids did the music." Netsky’s first instrument

was the piano. Saxophone and oboe followed. "My father sold

upholstery

supplies. He still sells them. His business is in Philadelphia.

Really,

he was a rag dealer. When people discovered that you could stuff

cushions

with rags, they called them upholstery supplies. On my father’s side

of the family I saw these interesting characters. When I would sort

rags for him, I would see these eastern European characters who spoke

Yiddish."

After attending Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon for a year, Netsky

transferred

to the New England Conservatory of Music, where he earned bachelor’s

and master’s degrees in composition. Asked why he switched, he

replies,

"I probably shouldn’t have."

Netsky is still at the New England Conservatory, where he is currently

chairman of the Jazz Studies department. His 18 contact hours of

teaching

a week put him among college faculty with the heaviest teaching

burdens;

he taught from nine in the morning till seven in the evening the day

of our conversation. But academic commitments at the conservatory

occupy just one corner of his plate. He tours with the Klezmer

Conservatory

Band, directs music for an area synagogue, devotes himself to Ph.D.

studies in ethnomusicology at Connecticut Wesleyan, and is a hands-on

father of daughters Leah, 9, and Mira, 5. His wife works for the

Anti-Defamation

League in Boston.

Netsky’s Ph.D. studies give academic beef to his leadership in

reviving

klezmer music. He describes his dissertation as "getting inside

the world of klezmer music in Philadelphia in the context of the

wedding

during the years 1900 to 1950." He adds, "Since my grandfather

was a klezmer in Philadelphia, I’m learning family history at the

same time."

For the thesis Netsky has done about 40 interviews and has drawn on

existing histories and oral records. "I’m looking into who the

musicians were, what they were like, and how deviant they were. At

that stage of immigration the wedding was an uninhibited celebration.

It was like the old world. It was a place where you didn’t try to

be American. It was O.K. to be what your grandparents were."

In the course of his thesis research Netsky put together a group

called

the "Philadelphia Klezmer Heritage Ensemble" to get some of

the musicians playing again. "People are used to seeing the name

`Philadelphia’ with the word `heritage,’" he comments. "A

woman in the Philadelphia Klezmer Society is almost 70. She was the

first woman to graduate from Curtis in percussion. She’s the best

klezmer percussionist around. Klezmer is really a man’s world. It’s

a fraternity. Any woman who wanted to be part of klezmer had to have

pretty thick skin."

Women members of KCB include featured vocalist Judy Bressler, a

founding

member who also leads dancing for the band and acts as a mistress

of ceremonies; clarinetist Ilene Stahl; and violinist Deborah Strauss,

a Rutgers graduate. As director Netsky plays alto saxophone and

accordion,

and is heavily involved in arranging music and programming concerts.

KCB’s current size of 11, says Netsky, is the lowest possible number

to supply all the instrumentalists needed. " I think of it as

a Yiddish and klezmer repertory ensemble. It can also break up into

groups as small as a duet. We have a lot of variety stylistically,

and also when it comes to the size of ensembles. Our instrumentation

is consistent with the Yiddish theater bands that recorded in the

1920s, or a very large wedding band."

"Klezmer bands were large because often half of the musicians

were under 15," Netsky says. "The guys hired would bring along

apprentices learning from them. It was a ragtag sound. We can sound

that way if we want, or we can sound like a Hollywood style klezmer

band, such as Mickey Katz, Joel Gray’s father. Or we can sound like

a slick New York wedding band."

Netsky and the KCB have brought their new version of klezmer back

to Europe, to considerable audience acclaim. "You could go to

a small town in Moldova or Bessarabia and still find a functioning

klezmer band," he says, "but it would be in an old context.

It would be like the bands of 100 years ago, not like the klezmer

renaissance. The klezmer revival in Europe has taken place mostly

in Germany and Holland, where people are hungry for something Jewish.

"Klezmer is a way for youth to vent their frustration to their

parents and grandparents about Jews not being there," Netsky

continues.

"It’s a protest by youth. You mostly read about skin heads in

Germany desecrating synagogues, but many people in Germany marry Jews

if they can find them. The better-educated Germans are very interested

in Jewish culture. It’s the same story in Poland."

Still, in concert halls Netsky says that he tries to present a flavor

of where the music comes from. Netsky sketches the original context

of klezmer.

"The music was intertwined with dances breaking out into fights,

with dimly lit halls and with people sitting at long benches, eating

homemade food brought along by friends and neighbors. There would

be an emcee who knew everybody in room, and could make jokes about

everybody else who arrived. It was an intimate community pageant,

not one of these sterile spectacles you see today with a DJ and

dancers

and a light show and deafening music."

It’s a considerable challenge to convey all that in the contemporary

concert hall. "We try," he says "to get the spirit of

a Jewish wedding when people are just sitting in seats in a concert

hall and there’s not even any seltzer on the table."

— Elaine Strauss

Klezmer Conservatory Band, State Theater, 15

Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $16 to $28. Wednesday,

December

15, 8 p.m.


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