You may not consciously know what klezmer music is.
Yet when the music's wistful melodies reverberate in the background of almost any TV show with a Jewish topic (e.g., the PBS documentary "The Jewish Americans") and a group with a clarinet as lead instrument appears in last week's "Mazel-Tina" episode of the animated Fox hit "Bob's Burgers," it's easy to recognize how deeply klezmer is integrated into pop culture.
In the United States, klezmer bands ruled a golden age during the era of Yiddish theater and the widespread pressing of 78 rpm records, and then a silver age emerged during the heyday of early television and Jewish comedians in the Catskills. But the reason America retains the memory of the "soul music" of Eastern European Jews (also called "Ashkenazis") is due to the klezmer revival led by baby boomers in the '70s and '80s.
While American bands such as the Klezmatics, Kapelye and Brave Old World brought klezmer out of hotel ballrooms and into respected concert halls, the pre-Holocaust centers of Yiddish culture (Germany, Poland) began to host klezmer music festivals to recapture this lost aspect of European folklore. With the music now associated with institutions such as the New England Conservatory, taught to a new generation at festival retreats such as KlezKanada and New York's KlezKamp, and meticulously documented by Internet resource Klezmershack.com, klezmer assumed the mantle of classical Jewish soul music, with the same revered status that black Americans reserve for jazz.
But much like jazz, klezmer started out as the music for happy occasions and dance parties. It's in this spirit that Brave Old World's pianist/accordionist Alan Bern, who lives in Berlin and programs the annual Yiddish Summer Weimar, returns to Pittsburgh over the next two weeks to join the newly minted Three Rivers Klezmer Festival, organized by clarinetist Susanne Ortner-Roberts (a transplant from Augsburg, Germany) and heartily endorsed by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley.
The festival includes public events, such as a concert and a dance party, as well as private workshops. "At KlezKanada last summer, Alan was a teacher," recalls Ms. Ortner-Roberts. "We [resolved] that we should do something together, so that was the beginning of this festival. It was all a bit on the fly."
Mr. Bendix-Balgley, who's been with the PSO since 2011, was also a longtime acquaintance of Alan Bern. "My dad [Erik Bendix] taught Eastern European folk dancing, especially Yiddish. So I grew up with that music around me, and one of the groups he worked with was Brave Old World. I learned much of what I know about klezmer from them -- Alan's also a great composer and improviser. So when I heard from Susanne that she was going to bring Alan to town, I immediately thought it would be wonderful to get involved myself."
Mr. Bern recalls meeting the young violinist at the tender age of "around 8 or 10," but he's been very busy in Europe since then: organizing the Weimar fest, playing the "Lodz Ghetto" program with Brave Old World, and corralling The Other Europeans, an ensemble of 14 musicians from eight countries investigating the common roots of Jewish and Gypsy music from Bessarabia (northern Romania).
In the meantime, he's helped to move klezmer forward. "The term 'New Jewish Music' was coined by Brave Old World in 1995," he explains, "but the scholarly definition of klezmer didn't include vocal music and other things that klezmer revivalists wanted to do, so we needed to update that term to allow people to do different things. The roots in Yiddish music were getting obscured, so this summer I reinvented a new term called 'New Yiddish Music" -- that is, audibly anchored in Yiddish traditions and Ashkenazic culture."
According to Mr. Bern, new contenders such as New York's Yiddish Art Trio, based around musicians Michael Winograd and Benjy Fox-Rosen, fit into the New Yiddish Music concept, but so do entries from European countries, Asia and Israel who participate at Weimar. "I feel strongly that on the one hand, there are always new developments where contemporary groups are inspired by other contemporary sources, but over and over again, groups also discover traditional music, and the power of that music re-seeds and re-informs the more contemporary styles -- both approaches are important."
In that vein, the program that Mr. Bern, Ms. Ortner-Roberts and Mr. Bendix-Balgley will present during tonight's flagship "Neshome" (the Yiddish word for "soul") concert at Rodef Shalom Temple will embrace all aspects of New Yiddish Music. "We'll do compositions spanning the 20th century by Joel Engel and Joseph Achron, and I'll be playing the piece I wrote for Itzhak Perlman called 'Reb Itzik's Nign', where Noah will perform Perlman's part," Mr. Bern explains. "Then Susanne and I will be improvising together and doing both some traditional klezmer and new Jewish music."
Whither klezmer in its budding fourth generation? Bendix-Balgley has an optimistic outlook. "I think that because of the renaissance of the past 30 years, there are exciting new aspects in addition to just re-creating the music played back then in the Old Country. There's a lot of new Jewish music being created now -- new compositions and collaborations with jazz and gypsy and classical, and hopefully the people who come to the festival will get a sense of that.
"My connections to this music are from the classical [realm], but I do klezmer on the side, and I enjoy playing it because it allows me to let down my hair and get into the soulfulness of it," he adds. "It's an essential element of Jewish culture, so people who listen to it should be moved to tap their feet and want to dance, because it's catchy and joyous."