Fans of clarinetist David Krakauer know that he often closes his eyes when playing, entranced by klezmer riffs he seems to pull from past centuries. So when the setting sun shone directly into his eyes at the onset of a concert at Temple Emanuel in the South Hills, he didn't so much as, well, bat an eye.
The occasion was the opening weekend of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival. It has a variety of offerings in the coming weeks, but the focus Sunday night was on classical music influenced by, or incorporating, Jewish music and traditions.
The festival never fails to bring attention to forgotten composers, not as a charity project to bring light to a composer oppressed in the past -- although that is often also the case -- but with an ear to good music.
That's subjective, of course, but to my ears the two works by Alexander Krein, a Russian Jew (1883-1951), were worthy of any chamber-music program. His background is incredible: He avoided purges in Stalin's regime despite actively pursuing bringing Jewish tunes and harmonies into a classical setting.
Both of his "Jewish Sketches Nos. 1-2" are scored for clarinet and string quartet, and both weave klezmer threads in a proverbial tapestry of sound. Mr. Krakauer is so adept at moving between the techniques and traditions of classical and klezmer that the intriguing elements of the works came to the fore with no distraction. For instance, the Andante con anima of the first piece began with an impassioned wail performed by cellist and festival founder Aron Zelkowicz. Mr. Krakauer picked it up, danced with it, passed it back to the cellist and then let it drift off, as if the music had tired itself out.
Well, Mr. Krakauer certainly hadn't, blowing his clarinet with his trademark vivacity meets virtuosity in a fully klezmer set. First came a solo that inexorably climbed the distinctive scale to a piecing climax. The small worship space in Temple Emanuel has excellent acoustics, so the clarinetist had some fun ringing ears before a klezmer ensemble joined him for the lively favorite "Der Heyser Bulgar." I should note here that the quartet and ensemble were of the highest quality, led by several members of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
The second half was entirely devoted to a sprawling song cycle by the Argentian composer Osvaldo Golijov. Soprano Lara Bruckmann delivered it with visceral energy and keen understanding of the texts that came from the Golden Age of 15th-century Spain, when Christian, Arab and Jewish cultures intermingled.
There were more than a few scintillating movements, such as a harp and guitar duo "Luna" performed with gentle plucking by Nuiko Wadden and Oren Fader, respectively. And "Tancas Serradas a Muru" and "Wa Habibi" used laptop beats (Emily Jackson) to shift the music to ever so close to Middle Eastern pop. Ms. Bruckmann was an apt guide through the winding path, singing with a lovely, dark-hued tone, and conductor David Stock balanced the forces well. Earlier, the Pittsburgh composer contributed a short work based on Sephardic melodies with striking harmonics as guides.
But in the end, the heterogeneity and abrupt gear-shifting of the 11 movements eventually tired my ears that yearned for more of the touching integration of the first half.music