Klezmer With Soul

A celebration of ‘Jiddischkeit’ at the Wiener Konzerthaus

On The Town | Matthias Wurz | November 2008

It was at sunset on Saturday, Sept. 13, just as the Sabbath ended, when the Enemble Klesmer Wien sat down on a small podium in front of the massive Beethoven Statue in the Grosser Saal foyer at the Konzerthaus, ready to perform.

While the audience made their way in, passed their coats and belongings to the coat checkers, the four musicians took up their instruments and began the Yiddish wedding music traditionally played in the Eastern European Schtetln. The traditional scoring of clarinet, violin, double bass and accordion sounds merged beautifully under Beethoven’s grim, knotted brows.

It all had the atmosphere of an Italian Piazza, with throngs of people gathered around and listening, sipping on a glass of wine or a cocktail. Some were chatting, yet the noise of clinking glasses that might otherwise be irritating in a performance, here added to the charm and mood. Elderly couples were offered chairs, while kids sat on the cold marble floor, listening attentively, many moved to tears by the rich and heavy, yet mellow music. Some of those who were standing found themselves swaying from side to side, irresistibly moving with the rhythms of the music.

Others though, were awaiting tonight’s main event at 21:00, the concert with legendary clarinetist Giora Feidman of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning movie Schindler’s List, and found refuge in the buffet areas of the Mozart-Saal or Neuer Saal for exquisite kosher meals and snacks, prepared and presented by some of Vienna’s most experienced Jewish chefs.

Although the performance of the Klesmer Ensemble lasted over an hour, it was only the hors d’oeuvre to the  festivities – a two-day festival, Spot On: Jiddischkeit.

Bernhard Kerres, the new Executive Chairman of the Konzerthaus, launched the festival "expressing our curiosity toward the influences and enrichments our culture experiences today." This focus on Jewish and Yiddish culture hosted 17 events from concerts to jam sessions and readings. The program continues in 2009 with a festival of  Turkish music.

The full calendar of events – all for EUR 25 a day, EUR 40 for both days – was sold out. The fine 28-page concert program, a magazine really, showed off the immense variety of distinguished performers, from both Israel and Austria.

But as it approached 21:00 on that first evening, the audience hurried into the Grosser Saal, to reserve the best places in the open seating. Argentine-born Giora Feidman, long-standing member of the Israel Philharmonic, is the world’s most famous Klezmer musician, and his cross-over performances, particularly with Jazz, make his concerts an astonishing experience.

The large hall of 1,800 seats was packed, the lights dimmed with only the few chairs and music stands in the middle of the large empty stage illuminated in a spotlight. All was still, until we hear a faint sound of a clarinet, whispering somewhere deep within the dark auditorium.

Those who have heard Feidman’s concerts before are familiar with his haunting entries, dramatic and at the same time unintrusive, that are completely captivating, forcing the audience’s attention entirely onto the mellow sound. Not a cough nor a whisper disrupted the still magic. As Feidman climbed the steps to the stage from the center corridor of the auditorium, he was enveloped in a bath of warm applause.

Feidman’s performance, together with his two partners Jens-Uwe Popp on guitar and Guido Jäger, double bass, lasted just over an hour, but in that time unfolded an extraordinary weave of virtuosity and musical invention. One highlight was an astonishing arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero from the trio demonstrating their creativity and mastery of form, in what was a completely breathtaking performance.

But Feidman was also a charming entertainer. Confessing his love for Viennese Apfelstrudel, advising in a mixture of German and English that "I can recommend you a good Hummus in Haifa and Jerusalem, but Strudel nur in Vienna," which was met with warm and approving laughter by the audience.

When Feidman spoke about the clarinet, it was in philosophical terms, describing it as "the microphone of my Seele (soul)." The human body is an instrument of song.

The concert ended on a more serious note, in a reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a problem with both people living together, Feidman admitted, but he appealed to the hope that "we must not kill each other."

And so, the short, meditative piece performed to conclude the concert was written by Feidman and incorporated musical motives of both Israeli and Palestinian national anthems. After all, we are all one Mishpoche – a family within a Yiddish embrace.

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    the vienna review November 2008