Klezmahler!

She’Koyokh and members of the Aurora Orchestra

A few days ago, I happened to hear about an intriguing concert in London- the Aurora Chamber Orchestra playing Mahler’s First Symphony, followed by a Klezmer band, She’Koyokh. Being a fan of both Mahler and Klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish folk music), I decided to book tickets, not quite knowing what to expect.

The concert took place at St Luke’s, Old St in the City, a converted church, now rehearsal and concert space for the LSO and others. The first half began with the orchestra in darkness, a sole spotlight on Timothy Orpen, an astonishing young clarinetist, who played a virtuosic solo by Jörg Widmann. Hardly had he finished when a clarinettist in the rafters took over (Susi Evans, from She’Koyokh), playing a traditional Doina, accompanied, still in darkness, by the orchestra. This was drama at the service of the music, and it worked beautifully, highlighting the prime role of the clarinet in both the symphony and in Klezmer music, and introducing both improvisational and traditional music from the outset. It was only after the conductor, the charismatic Nicholas Collon, crept on to the stage and the first few chords of the Mahler symphony trembled into life, that the lights began to come up.

The Mahler was performed in a brand new version for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington, with one instrument per part. This version was fascinating. Watching single strings cope with demanding counterpoint and lyrical intensity in a virtuosic display with the transparency of chamber music was stimulating. Each wind player brought individual colour and charisma. There was nowhere to hide, and no one wanted to. There was sometimes a pull between those wanting to let music breathe (particularly string players), and the wind agreeing with the conductor in wanting to drive the music forward. This resulted in minor ensemble difficulties occasionally, but over all the playing was outstanding. The famous funeral march of the third movement is punctuated by obvious references to Klezmer music, making explicit the raison d’être of the programme. It was only in the fortissimo sections of the final movement that I really missed the impact of a large orchestra.

After the interval, it was the turn of She’Koyokh, a distinguished klezmer band, to take the stage. In vibrant outfits, with rakish hats and equally rakish grins, they provided an immediate contrast to the classical players, and the audience were enthralled within minutes by a series of songs and dances from the Sephardic Jewish tradition, Bulgaria, and Turkey, amongst others. Astonishingly, some of the Aurora players had volunteered to join them, having taken a series of workshops on Yiddish music. A main part of the success of the evening came from seeing music being made with such playfulness, courage and risk-taking. Watching the classical players step (leap) outside their comfort zone, be inspired by folk music, and willing to improvise publicly was an inspiration.

As humans, we often mistake seriousness for purposefulness, and vice versa. Here purpose was all joy. The strengths of the classical players: virtuosity, musicianship, the ability to learn new music quickly in different styles, combined with the strengths of the multi-cultural band: Characterfulness. Juice. Drama. Instinct. Chutzpah. Groove. It was one of the most invigorating evenings I’ve experienced in a long time, and I didn’t want it to end.

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