Press | News/FEatures


South Florida Sun - Sentinel - Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Bill Hirschman Special Correspondent

Broward Metro Edition
Feb 28, 2008

There's that sound: joyful and mournful, foreign and familiar, idiosyncratic and universal. All at the same time.

Klezmer music has become so ingrained in the fabric of America that its wails and reels no longer jar a mainstream audience's ear. Exhibit one will be performed in Florida next week: George Gershwin's opening clarinet strains of Rhapsody in Blue don't sound exotic anymore, they sound American.

The 23-song musical revue The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, opening March 4 at Parker Playhouse, argues that Gershwin developed his musical vocabulary from the same Jewish liturgical music and Yiddish popular tunes that gave birth to Klezmer.

In the revue, which runs through March 9, a Gershwin stand-in performs with singers and a band to illustrate how his writing echoes Klezmer and cantorial music, blues and jazz.

Far from a scholarly lecture, the show was a popular hit at the Coconut Grove Playhouse six years ago under former Grove chief Arnold Mittelman. He's remounting an identical edition, including Michael Paul Levin channeling Gershwin and musical direction by the show's creator, Joe Vass. Each performance will feature a welcome from veteran actor Jack Klugman, who performed three times at the Grove.

"You'll hear all your favorite Gershwin music" as it is usually performed, assured Vass, who uses the word Klezmer in its original meaning - any Jewish musician. But reflecting the jazz element, "we never play the songs the same way twice."

Klezmer became widely known in the late 1800s as the fusing of Hebraic religious music with Yiddish secular culture featuring clarinets and violins that soar from the soulful to the exuberant. It became a touchstone for immigrant Jews struggling to preserve their past while assimilating into their adopted country.

But the show also touches on how the rhythmic open-hearted, expressive nature of Jewish music echoes African-American music, which helps explain the affinity that Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen felt for the blues. "There is something beyond the mental consciousness where this music lives that has the ability of grabbing people where they live," Mittelman said.

Coincidentally, on Sunday, the unrelated Klezmer Company Orchestra will present Bulgars, Bongos & Blues, a concert examining the fusion of ethnic jazz and exotic melodies from 14 countries in a recital on Florida Atlantic University's Boca Raton campus.

The Klezmer Company Orchestra, directed and founded by FAU educator Aaron Kula, rearranges traditional music through a dozen other influences from classical to jazz.

"The whole concept of our concert is to create something new out of something old. I do that by resurrecting traditional melodies and blending them with unrelated musical genres," Kula said.

Proceeds from the concert will benefit the FAU Libraries' Music Collections, for which Kula serves as director.