October 20, 2018

Klezmer, classical royalty at the Bowl

“Energy is eternal delight,” the poet William Blake said, and klezmer music proves his point. For centuries throughout Jewish Eastern Europe, rhythmically high-strung klezmer bands, which often featured a virtuoso violinist and clarinetist trading licks, were a provocation to dance. They could also make brides weep at the drop of a yarmulke.

Once viewed as a profoundly autobiographical music of the Jewish people, klezmer has shown range and flexibility over time. In the first half of 20th century America, and during its resurgence in the late 1970s and ’80s, klezmer took on an almost jazz- and big band-like sound.

On Aug. 20, Itzhak Perlman joins Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot and the Klezmer Conservatory Band at the Hollywood Bowl in a program including klezmer and cantorial songs from Perlman’s latest CD, “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul.” The concert seems designed to show klezmer as more than just up-tempo ethnic dance music.

“It’s very heartfelt, and some of it is just plain happy,” Perlman said by phone from Chicago’s Ravinia Festival. “There is definitely improvisation. In some ways, there’s improvisation in anything. In classical music, even though you may not change the notes, you still improvise musically so that not every performance is the same.”

Perlman also sees a link between klezmer and prayer. “When you hear the klezmer style of clarinet playing, there’s a lot of praying and krechzing [sighing or groaning] and sobbing in the clarinet,” Perlman said. “I will try to do a bit of that when I play the violin. It’s about adding human emotion.” 

For Perlman, the human voice is a natural conduit to emotion, and he compared Helfgot, a tenor and chief cantor at the Park East Synagogue in New York City, to Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

“I knew about him, heard him on YouTube, but didn’t hear him live until two or three years ago in Israel,” Perlman said. “I went backstage and said, ‘Let’s make a record.’ ” 

The result is “Eternal Echoes,” released by Sony late last year. “The timbre of his voice is attractive,” Perlman said, “and his style and technical ability are quite phenomenal. It’s my opinion that it’s easy for him to sing, and you can hear it. It’s just very effortless.”

Helfgot said his voice stood out from the crowd even when he was a child. “But I didn’t think I’d make from that a profession,” he said. “I remember at the Shabbos table at home, my father would ask, ‘Why do you sing so much higher than everyone?’ And I said, ‘This is my voice.’ ”

Helfgot said it is the variety that makes the new disc and concerts with Perlman special. “It’s not only one kind of music,” Helfgot said. “You have khazones, Yiddish folk music, klezmer and real khazones, which is a little more heavy. That’s what makes this project unique. Everyone can find something that he’s close to.”

Helfgot is especially happy about the multicultural audience he sees at concerts. “In New York, we played to thousands, and I saw all kinds of people in the audience,” he said.  “Jewish, not Jewish, Orthodox, not Orthodox. People of every kind.”

Kids from Perlman’s summer music program on Shelter Island in New York performed on the “Eternal Echoes” disc, as well, he said, adding, “I would say 95 percent of them never heard this kind of music before. Not all of them were Jewish. You could tell they were excited about the musical experience, the singing. They couldn’t stop talking about it.” 

Perlman’s students won’t be coming out for the Bowl concert, but musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be among the additional players. 

Hankus Netsky, founder and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, who is also Perlman’s musical arranger on “Eternal Echoes,” called the klezmer show a dream come true. “The show is Perlman’s baby,” Netsky said. “He’s the only one who could do this — take this to the Hollywood Bowl.”

Netsky, a faculty member at the New England Conservatory, started the Klezmer Conservatory Band as an experiment in 1979. “It was a missing link in 20th century music,” he said. “It’s our classical music.”

Supertitles on the Bowl’s high-definition screens will make the songs accessible to everyone, Netsky said. “They are great settings of poetry, musically attuned to what’s in the prayer,” he said. “Klezmer has come back because it’s good. It’s not nostalgia.”

Asked why the clarinet started to take over the sound world of klezmer in its American incarnation, Netsky said, “Because the clarinet sounds like a violin, and it’s louder. It became a more dynamic violin. In America, louder worked.” Indeed, the band’s clarinetist, Ilene Stahl, has been called the “Jimi Hendrix of klezmer clarinet.” 

Perlman, Helfgot and company will be performing most of “Eternal Echoes” on the Bowl program, but there may also be room for songs like “Yiddishe Mamma,” not on the recording. Perlman said he wasn’t sure about “Kol Nidre,” the disc’s concluding track, but with the High Holy Days near, Helfgot said he was considering it. 

“It’s such an incredibly sacred piece,” Perlman said, “but we’ll see.”

Perlman also said to expect “a little shmoozing” with the audience during the Bowl program, and he agreed you can’t have a klezmer concert without dancing.

“Let’s hope that the audience can do a little dancing in the aisles,” Perlman said. “We did that at Symphony Hall in Boston. Can you imagine? The home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They were dancing in the aisles. So let’s see what happens at the Bowl.”