The soul of klezmer

Stellar clarinetist Giora Feidman has been blurring the boundaries of classical and world music for over half a century – with a little help from above.

June 5, 2010 00:01
Giora Feldman

giora feldman clarinetist 311. (photo credit: Felix Broede)

If you want to know where Giora Feidman is coming from, as a person and as an artist, you would do well to give his latest album a spin or two. Klezmer & Strings was recorded last year with the Gershwin Quartet, which, as you would expect, proffers a beguiling mix of mostly klezmer-oriented classical works, as well as a work transcribed by Feidman’s wife, Ora Bat Chaim. Characteristically for Feidman, there is also an expansive foray into other domains, including a finger-licking medley of George Gershwin numbers and a taste of Argentinean nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla. All are a reflection of the organic synthesis of cultural and musical influences that flow through Feidman.

Feidman, 74, is probably the world’s best-known klezmer musician. If there were ever a definitive player of that most Jewish of European musical styles, that epithet must surely go to clarinetist Feidman. Klezmer is probably one of the most emotive forms of expression in the Jewish cultural hinterland. There is an undeniable generous element of joy in the meandering and undulating lines of klezmer but, naturally, being a quintessentially Jewish art form, there is always some degree of wistfulness in there too. Feidman embodies all of that, and then some.

Buenos Aires-born Feidman did not need to play his famed diaphanous clarinet for me when we met recently at his moshav home near Petah Tikva, but it certainly brought his personality, not to mention his peerless musicianship and spiritual ethos, into even sharper focus. The man talks as he plays, constantly exuding emotion and that oh so South American blend of off-the-cuff joie de vivre. When he talks of his achievements during a glittering career that has stretched over half a century, there is no sense of hubris there, just a wish to share some of his happy artistic odyssey with you.

“You know I played for the pope in front of 800,000 people,” says Feidman with a smile that implies that he treats his appearance, at the 2005 World Youth Day event in Cologne, for more people than most musicians accrue in a lifetime, as something of a jaunt. “I thought what should I play for the pope and all these people, so I took a shofar with me and played a Jewish tune. There was an enormous cross behind me and there was the pope about 15 meters away from me. I don’t mean any disrespect to the pope but, to me, it was all a bit funny.”

Papal gigs apart, Feidman takes his art very seriously. Besides klezmer, his oeuvre covers a wide range of genres, but his principal musical line of work was never in question. He is the fourth generation of Feidmans to perform this most Jewish strand of music folklore.

He began his career in Buenos Aires as a member of the prestigious Teatro Colón Symphony Orchestra. He came here in the mid-1950s and became the youngest clarinetist ever to play with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He stayed with the IPO for more than 20 years.

“I was lucky,” says Feidman. “I didn’t have any absorption problems in terms of finding employment. I had the job with the IPO even before I got on the plane to come to Israel.”

He embarked on a solo career in the 1970s, since when he has performed with many of the world’s top classical ensembles and won worldwide acclaim when he played the clarinet solos on the sound track of Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar Award winner Schindler’s List.

THE MAN is undoubtedly a star on the global stage but, for Feidman, all that is like water off the proverbial duck’s back. “You, or anyone else, can say I am a star, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. Nothing is more important than playing the music.”

Paradoxically for someone who makes his bread out of making sounds, Feidman claims to be on a quest to achieve the opposite. “The silence between the sounds is what it is all about. When an audience applauds me at the end of a concert, I come back for an encore, and then I like to do some sort of community singing with them. I tell them to keep singing when I leave the stage. Applause dispels the magic of the music. We must try to preserve that. I don’t want applause. One of our problems is that we can’t deal with silence.”

Possibly more than anything, however, Feidman is an entertainer, as was evident at his concert at the Spot On: Jiddischkeit Festival held at Vienna’s Konzerthaus in September 2008. The audience was enthralled not only with Feidman’s captivating musicianship but also with his between-numbers repartee. “Maybe I should get a double fee, one for playing and one for telling stories,” says Feidman with a thunderous belly laugh. “In my profession they say that if you don’t play an instrument, tell a story.”

Then again musical artists tell stories through their instrumental work too. “I don’t know which is more efficient, or which is better, telling a story through music or through words. It’s just important that you communicate your feelings.”

For Feidman it is all one long spiritual odyssey. “Music is something you feel. You don’t think about it. When I say ‘you,’ I mean the performer. I don’t analyze what I play; that’s for the musicologist. The performer is a channel through which the music flows. When you play music, when you sing, you must have trust.”

In what? In whom?

“I am talking about trust without an object. Trust is light or energy.”

This ethereal take necessitated something of a more concrete explanation. “You see objects around because there is light, but you don’t see the light, do you? You trust something you don’t see.”

Things were to become a little clearer – in more ways than one. “I talk to you, you hear me, but you don’t see the sound, but you trust in the sound – not the content of what I am saying to you. You have no doubts about the means. No one can sing without this thing called trust. When you trust the object you are connected with the creator. If not, you’re not connected.”

Just in case, at this stage, I was wondering about Feidman’s religious leanings he quickly preempted such deliberations. “Religion is not important here, anyway religion is a divisive element in this world. What is important is to trust, to connect with this force, with this energy, this light that we call light.”

So, it seems, Feidman is not aiming to gain his rabbinical qualifications, while maintaining a hectic global performing and recording schedule. “I’m no rabbi, give me a break. I have been taught by others. I didn’t learn the musical language from a music teacher. I have studied Sufism, I have done yoga, today I read Kabbala – I don’t study it, there’s a great difference there. My music teacher in Argentina used to say to me, ‘I cannot teach you music. You must learn.’ He showed me the road to travel, but he told me he couldn’t take me along the road. He gave me the torch, and said it was a good one, but I had to do the work myself.”

FEIDMAN HAS worked with many of the world’s top classical orchestras, although he now prefers synergies with smaller ensembles, and there are confluences with jazz musicians and, naturally, with klezmer acts. He has literally dozens of recordings out there, is feted wherever he goes and maintains a performing schedule that belies his post-pension age. Then again Feidman doesn’t exactly relate to his daytime occupation as work per se.

“There is far too much emphasis on work in music, on exercises, on playing scales, on playing so many notes. Society teaches children to play scales, scales and more scales,” he says, although qualifying that with a cultural divide reference. “You know in India they play the same scale for 45 minutes. Why do we [in the West] need to play so many notes? My teacher used to say: ‘Do you know how much you can play just with two notes?’ There are people who play so many tunes with so many notes but, in fact, they don’t communicate anything at all.”

One wonders whether this epiphany is one adopted from his childhood teacher back in Argentina, or whether enlightenment has been achieved through hard work and with the wisdom of a lifetime of searching. “Age is important because it requires us to strive for the truth.”

There are some, however, who embark on the simplicity continuum far earlier. “[Twenty seven-year-old Chinese pianist] Lang Lang doesn’t play fast. He started out playing quickly, to get himself into the market, but he understood how important it is to play slowly when he was very young. That’s unbelievable. He plays with his soul and with good breathing. You know neshima [breath] and neshama [soul] use the same letters in Hebrew.”

While appreciating there are certain practicalities in life to be considered, Feidman has strong opinions on the capitalist approach to the arts. “If we were taught to play music and to sing without thinking about how to market ourselves, things would be much better. When a mother sings to her baby, she doesn’t think about how to please an audience or sell records. When a baby cries and the mother picks it up and moves it from side to side, just like a waltz, the baby stops crying. That dance is natural, not fueled by commercial intent.”

Feidman says he hardly ever teaches, but when he does, he likes to present his audience with a teaser. “I ask them who invented colors and who invented the musical note. Of course they get very confused but eventually someone will say: ‘Music comes from nature.’ Our brain tells us we have to go to Juilliard, and we have to practice. That way of thinking, for me, is the beginning of the end. That’s too much artificial education.”

Music, according to Feidman, requires a combination of soul and body. “Music is the language of the soul, as far as we know. The soul is the instrument for receiving the message, and you pass that on with your body.”

Ego is another major pitfall to be circumnavigated by the artist. “You know there are conductors who, as soon as they raise the baton, start building the applause they know they’ll get at the end of the work,” Feidman declares.

So how does the septuagenarian klezmer maestro avoid that one? When you take the stage, and there several thousand people sitting there about to hang on your every note, that, surely, must do something to the performer. Typically, Feidman has a practical, and comical, view on applause and kudos and quickly returns to his spiritual angle, making sure, as usual, to keep things in perspective.

“Compliments don’t do anything for me because my wife can’t buy anything with them. When you pray in a synagogue, no one claps at the end. Music is a prayer without religion. Just because I am a Jew means I can’t play ‘Ave Maria’? If I play what people consider to be Jewish music, for a German audience, does that make them all Jews? Of course not.”

Getting this man to “own up” to his achievements is hard work. Two hours into the interview, a crack, just the finest of slivers, appears. “The only thing you can say about me, in terms of klezmer, is that I am responsible for the revival of this genre. It’s also interesting that this revival came from a Jew who lives in Israel. I know a lot of Jews in the Diaspora don’t consider us Jews. They say we are Israelis. Once a Jew tried to insult me by saying that I wasn’t a Jew, only an Israeli. That was because I agreed to play for free in some place in Germany.”

The talking over, the famous see-through clarinet – which Feidman was quick to note is made of nothing more valuable than plastic – found its way to Feidman’s lips and I was treated to a brief private musical and spiritual experience that was more enriching and moving than many a full concert or CD I have heard over the years. As the final note gently tapered off into the air, I did not applaud.    

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