Jewish folk music links two artists of different generations

Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

DETROIT — Behind the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's world premiere this week of a Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet is a story of two Jews of Polish stock united by fate, heritage and a love for Klezmer music — the celebratory folk music of Eastern European Jews.

They were born 30 years and thousands of miles apart: Wlad Marhulets, a precocious 23-year-old composer raised in Gdansk, who now studies at Juilliard in New York; and David Krakauer, 53, a native New Yorker and virtuoso clarinetist with big-time classical credits but best known as a leading figure in the Klezmer revival and for fusing Klezmer, avant-garde jazz, funk and more.

Traditional Klezmer music is defined by wailing clarinet and fiddle melodies laid on top of driving dance rhythms derived from Romanian folk music. A great deal of emotion is poured into vocalized moans and bent pitches that suggest the blue notes of jazz. Both Marhulets and Krakauer have found in this soulful expression a resonance with their religious and cultural identity as Jews.

As Krakauer put it, "We were two Polish Jews living in parallel universes. The concerto is really a multigenerational, human story of us coming together. We were both searching for our roots."

Their paths first crossed in Warsaw about five years ago, when Marhulets, a budding clarinetist and composer who idolized Krakauer, met and played for his hero backstage at a concert — an episode Krakauer had forgotten by the time they reconnected a few years later in New York.

Marhulets and Krakauer were interviewed separately, the composer from his New York dorm and the clarinetist from Paris, where he was on tour.

Q: Wlad, how did you first hear David's music?

Marhulets: I started my musical life seven years ago. My brother gave me a CD of David and I was absolutely lost with Klezmer music and David's playing. I went to music school for three years, and I played clarinet, mostly classical and Klezmer music.

Q: What attracted you to Klezmer music?

Marhulets: There was so much energy and so much sadness in it, and it was very touching. David played with drums, guitar and electric bass and maybe this made me interested. He made it sound very natural. To write a concerto for him is a dream come true.

Q: David, how did you come to commission the concerto?

Krakauer: Wlad contacted me over the Internet. He said, "I'm from Poland, and I have a project that could be of interest to both of us." There was a very confident, authoritative tone to the e-mail.

I go to a meeting in New York and find this boy who's about 21, and he says, "I have this idea for a Klezmer musical." I said, "Do you have backers?" And he said, "No, it's just an idea." I told him to contact me when it was more solid. In the meantime he gave me a CD of his music. My wife took it home and listened and when I got home she said, "David, I think it would be in your interest to listen to this right away."

Q: What did you hear?

Krakauer: I was struck immediately by this incredible, brilliant voice. His music was dark and funny at the same time. It had this almost perverse sense of humor in a delicious way. I can't really describe it. He used familiar sounds but drew me in by putting them together in unique and unusual ways. The CD was a real mix of genres, from Klezmer tunes he had written to electronic music to orchestral music. We met again, and I said, "Why don't you write a concerto for me?"

Q: What is the piece like?

Krakauer: High-energy. He takes Klezmer motifs and chops them apart in a beautiful way, and it's a tour de force for the clarinet. I play it with my Klezmer sound and with my ornaments, what we call "krechtz," the little sobs between the notes and trills that I add. There's a cadenza that's mostly written, but it also has a short improvised section.

Q: Wlad, how have you accomplished so much so fast?

Marhulets: I don't really know. I started developing very fast, but I felt that the clarinet was not enough. I wanted to write my own music; I found that more interesting.

Q: How did you end up studying with John Corigliano at Juilliard?

Marhulets: A few years ago I watched the movie "The Red Violin" that has his amazing soundtrack. That was the very first piece of his I heard. It made me want to study with him. I sent him a letter with my CD, and he answered. He said I should come for an audition.

Q: How do you approach the challenge of fusing idioms?

Marhulets: I write very fast and I don't think about the process very much. I write unknowingly, unconsciously. It's natural to me to connect different styles.

Q: David, how authentic is Wlad's assimilation of Klezmer?

Krakauer: He's done his homework. He takes these Klezmer melodies and refracts them. But he also started writing music because he heard a recording of mine. So he's coming from a deep influence. It's about me, but it's not like when I hear people imitate my records and it's like looking at a mirror but seeing a weird, distorted caricature. That's not Wlad. He really got me, so it's also a portrait of who I am, and that's a lovely thing.

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