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.

giora feldman clarinetist 311 (photo credit: Felix Broede)
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 diaphanousclarinet for me when we met recently at his moshav home near PetahTikva, but it certainly brought his personality, not to mention hispeerless musicianship and spiritual ethos, into even sharper focus. Theman talks as he plays, constantly exuding emotion and that oh so SouthAmerican blend of off-the-cuff joie de vivre. When he talks of hisachievements during a glittering career that has stretched over half acentury, there is no sense of hubris there, just a wish to share someof his happy artistic odyssey with you.
“You know I played for the pope in front of 800,000 people,” saysFeidman with a smile that implies that he treats his appearance, at the2005 World Youth Day event in Cologne, for more people than mostmusicians accrue in a lifetime, as something of a jaunt. “I thoughtwhat should I play for the pope and all these people, so I took ashofar with me and played a Jewish tune. There was an enormous crossbehind me and there was the pope about 15 meters away from me. I don’tmean any disrespect to the pope but, to me, it was all a bit funny.”
Papal gigs apart, Feidman takes his art very seriously. Besidesklezmer, his oeuvre covers a wide range of genres, but his principalmusical line of work was never in question. He is the fourth generationof Feidmans to perform this most Jewish strand of music folklore.
He began his career in Buenos Aires as a member of the prestigiousTeatro Colón Symphony Orchestra. He came here in the mid-1950s andbecame the youngest clarinetist ever to play with the IsraelPhilharmonic Orchestra. He stayed with the IPO for more than 20 years.
“I was lucky,” says Feidman. “I didn’t have any absorption problems interms of finding employment. I had the job with the IPO even before Igot on the plane to come to Israel.”
He embarked on a solo career in the 1970s, since when he has performedwith many of the world’s top classical ensembles and won worldwideacclaim when he played the clarinet solos on the sound track of StevenSpielberg’s multi-Oscar Award winner Schindler’sList.
THE MAN is undoubtedly a star on the global stage but, for Feidman, allthat is like water off the proverbial duck’s back. “You, or anyoneelse, 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 silencebetween the sounds is what it is all about. When an audience applaudsme at the end of a concert, I come back for an encore, and then I liketo do some sort of community singing with them. I tell them to keepsinging when I leave the stage. Applause dispels the magic of themusic. We must try to preserve that. I don’t want applause. One of ourproblems is that we can’t deal with silence.”
Possibly more than anything, however, Feidman is an entertainer, as wasevident at his concert at the Spot On: Jiddischkeit Festival held atVienna’s Konzerthaus in September 2008. The audience was enthralled notonly with Feidman’s captivating musicianship but also with hisbetween-numbers repartee. “Maybe I should get a double fee, one forplaying and one for telling stories,” says Feidman with a thunderousbelly laugh. “In my profession they say that if you don’t play aninstrument, tell a story.”
Then again musical artists tell stories through their instrumental worktoo. “I don’t know which is more efficient, or which is better, tellinga story through music or through words. It’s just important that youcommunicate your feelings.”
For Feidman it is all one long spiritual odyssey. “Music is somethingyou feel. You don’t think about it. When I say ‘you,’ I mean theperformer. I don’t analyze what I play; that’s for the musicologist.The performer is a channel through which the music flows. When you playmusic, 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 concreteexplanation. “You see objects around because there is light, but youdon’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 talkto you, you hear me, but you don’t see the sound, but you trust in thesound – not the content of what I am saying to you. You have no doubtsabout the means. No one can sing without this thing called trust. Whenyou trust the object you are connected with the creator. If not, you’renot connected.”
Just in case, at this stage, I was wondering about Feidman’s religiousleanings he quickly preempted such deliberations. “Religion is notimportant here, anyway religion is a divisive element in this world.What is important is to trust, to connect with this force, with thisenergy, this light that we call light.”
So, it seems, Feidman is not aiming to gain his rabbinicalqualifications, while maintaining a hectic global performing andrecording schedule. “I’m no rabbi, give me a break. I have been taughtby others. I didn’t learn the musical language from a music teacher. Ihave studied Sufism, I have done yoga, today I read Kabbala – I don’tstudy it, there’s a great difference there. My music teacher inArgentina used to say to me, ‘I cannot teach you music. You mustlearn.’ He showed me the road to travel, but he told me he couldn’ttake me along the road. He gave me the torch, and said it was a goodone, 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 areconfluences with jazz musicians and, naturally, with klezmer acts. Hehas literally dozens of recordings out there, is feted wherever he goesand maintains a performing schedule that belies his post-pension age.Then again Feidman doesn’t exactly relate to his daytime occupation aswork per se.
“There is far too much emphasis on work in music, on exercises, onplaying scales, on playing so many notes. Society teaches children toplay scales, scales and more scales,” he says, although qualifying thatwith a cultural divide reference. “You know in India they play the samescale for 45 minutes. Why do we [in the West] need to play so manynotes? My teacher used to say: ‘Do you know how much you can play justwith two notes?’ There are people who play so many tunes with so manynotes but, in fact, they don’t communicate anything at all.”
One wonders whether this epiphany is one adopted from his childhoodteacher back in Argentina, or whether enlightenment has been achievedthrough hard work and with the wisdom of a lifetime of searching. “Ageis important because it requires us to strive for the truth.”
There are some, however, who embark on the simplicity continuum farearlier. “[Twenty seven-year-old Chinese pianist] Lang Lang doesn’tplay fast. He started out playing quickly, to get himself into themarket, but he understood how important it is to play slowly when hewas very young. That’s unbelievable. He plays with his soul and withgood breathing. You know neshima [breath] andneshama [soul] use the same letters in Hebrew.”
While appreciating there are certain practicalities in life to beconsidered, Feidman has strong opinions on the capitalist approach tothe arts. “If we were taught to play music and to sing without thinkingabout how to market ourselves, things would be much better. When amother sings to her baby, she doesn’t think about how to please anaudience or sell records. When a baby cries and the mother picks it upand moves it from side to side, just like a waltz, the baby stopscrying. That dance is natural, not fueled by commercial intent.”
Feidman says he hardly ever teaches, but when he does, he likes topresent his audience with a teaser. “I ask them who invented colors andwho invented the musical note. Of course they get very confused buteventually someone will say: ‘Music comes from nature.’ Our brain tellsus we have to go to Juilliard, and we have to practice. That way ofthinking, for me, is the beginning of the end. That’s too muchartificial 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 theinstrument for receiving the message, and you pass that on with yourbody.”
Ego is another major pitfall to be circumnavigated by the artist. “Youknow there are conductors who, as soon as they raise the baton, startbuilding 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 youtake the stage, and there several thousand people sitting there aboutto hang on your every note, that, surely, must do something to theperformer. Typically, Feidman has a practical, and comical, view onapplause and kudos and quickly returns to his spiritual angle, makingsure, as usual, to keep things in perspective.
“Compliments don’t do anything for me because my wife can’t buyanything with them. When you pray in a synagogue, no one claps at theend. Music is a prayer without religion. Just because I am a Jew meansI can’t play ‘Ave Maria’? If I play what people consider to be Jewishmusic, for a German audience, does that make them all Jews? Of coursenot.”
Getting this man to “own up” to his achievements is hard work. Twohours 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 amresponsible for the revival of this genre. It’s also interesting thatthis revival came from a Jew who lives in Israel. I know a lot of Jewsin the Diaspora don’t consider us Jews. They say we are Israelis. Oncea Jew tried to insult me by saying that I wasn’t a Jew, only anIsraeli. That was because I agreed to play for free in some place inGermany.”
The talking over, the famous see-through clarinet – which Feidman wasquick to note is made of nothing more valuable than plastic – found itsway to Feidman’s lips and I was treated to a brief private musical andspiritual experience that was more enriching and moving than many afull concert or CD I have heard over the years. As the final notegently tapered off into the air, I did not applaud.