In the Fiddler’s House: A Journey Into the Heart of Klezmer (1995)

by | Dec 16, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

In the Fiddler’s House: A Journey Into the Heart of Klezmer (1995)

Performers: Itzhak Perlman, violin/ Red Buttons/ Fyvush Finkel/ Leopold Kozlowski/ Brave Old World/ Kapelye/ The Klezmatics/ The Klezmer Conservatory Band/ Directors: Don Lenzer and Glenn DuBose
Studio: WNET/EMI Classics DVD 0946 3 68609 9 2
Video: Color, 4:3 full frame
Audio: PCM Stereo 
Length: 56 minutes
Rating: ****

Klezmer is a Yiddish-language equivalent of European gypsy music, an expression of folk idioms that stretch from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from the Middle Ages to contemporary Jewish life. Itzhak Perlman leaves his classical venues and journeys to the Lower East Side of New York City to the ghettos of Krakow, Poland to explore and participate in the ethos of klezmer, the chicken soup to the riffs and rhythmic formulas pervasive of the musical form. Much of the klezmer sound enjoys a distinctly Eastern Roumanian flavor. Replacing the folkish dulcimer with the violin, clarinet, bass, trombone, and bass drum and cymbals, the contemporary klezmer sound is distinctly festive, as evidenced by the opening shot of Jewish dancing and Perlmans’ “auditioning” as a new klezmer band member. “If you think classical chamber has give-and-take, look at klezmer,” quips Perlman.

We see Perlman receiving a veritable introduction to klezmer, then to what his teacher calls “the first and second verses. We go from a G Minor then to a G-sharp scale, then the first verse sung, etc.” Later, he is encouraged by the Klezmatics to play “slinky.” He picks up an electric violin with his regular bow, lays a few notes from Brahms. “They take the melody, and they pickle it and pepper it, a nice experience.” Perlman sits rapt, trying to absorb the riffs and the harmonic shifts, to the accordion and the clarinet, then adding improvisations between the verse recitations. Much sounds like Enescu. “Even the walls of this town know this music,” Perlman notes. “After about four or five seconds, I got it.”

Lunch with Fyvush Finkel and Red Buttons, three altes enjoying what Buttons calls “cardiac unit” food, kreplach and klezmer. “Very joyous,” says Buttons of klezmer, which he knew in the Catskills 60 years prior. “Klezmer got your heart started.” “Everybody would dance, even the wallflowers,” says Finkel. “When I played Yiddish vaudeville, the audience would have been lost without some klezmer players.” Cut to Finkel on the Yiddish circuit, belting out a tune in both English and Yiddish. That old kid can still shake and bake.  Both Buttons and Finkel knew the Palestine Theater. “People would jump in their seats, dancing in the aisles. Every Jewish movie had a wedding scene, and people would automatically dance. No klezmer music, no wedding.” Stock footage of a wedding, then a contemporary Jewish wedding in black and white, the only colors the music. Perlman is now in the throes of his Polish music-making, and the whoops emerge as naturally as the instrumental notes. “I don’t have all the little language accent down, but I have the feeling, very natural.” Like Chasidic songs, the klezmer picks up folk tunes, little marches, popular songs, made-up words. “Now the old traditions are coming back again,” one musician offers. “Music for the breaking of the glass; music preceding the arrival of the bride.” Clarinet and Perlman cut this rug, which wails like a cobra’s writhing. Cut to a scenes from Perlman’s daughter’s own wedding. The breaking of the glass unleashes a torrent of ethnic sound. “Some weddings lasted seven days; and when you listen to music like that, you are not surprised.”

“The word klezmer means in Hebrew “instruments of song”. In New York, this music made a marriage with aspects of Swing Music. “For me if one can play a Jewish melody like one can sing a Jewish melody, then you’ve done a great job.” Buttons sings a piece he did with an old Jewish cantor, Rosenblatt, some 60 years before. Jamming with Leopold Kozlowski, remembering old times, old cultural values. So many practitioners and artists destroyed by Nazism. “At least we have this beautiful music,” laments Perlman. “Why do we mention the Holocaust so often? So we don’t forget–to get more memories back.” There are so many beautiful synagogues in Krakow, but without people, without Jewish melody.” Perlman plays Achron’s Hebrew Melody in memoriam. Cut to a Jewish Culture Festival, Krakow, 1995. “Everybody around here still relishes and accepts the Jewish culture, a little rebirth.” Perlman closes on the note, “It’s so contagious; I caught the bug.”

— Gary Lemco

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