Klezmer classical kudos

Fiddler Daniel Hoffman is joining forces with classical violinist Zohar Lerner to try to tune the public back in to Yiddish music.

Fiddler Daniel Hoffman (photo credit: PETER SAMUELS)
Fiddler Daniel Hoffman
(photo credit: PETER SAMUELS)
Daniel Hoffman wants to put klezmer music back on the map. It’s not that there aren’t opportunities to hear the generally merry sounds of the Eastern European genre in shows and in various recorded formats, but Hoffman feels that klezmer has received too much bad press over the years.
The 50-year-old California-born fiddler will attempt to redress at least part of that injustice when he joins forces with classical violinist Zohar Lerner, conductor Barak Tal and the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble for two performances of the Classical Meets Klezmer program in Tel Aviv and Kfar Shmaryahu on January 11 and 12, respectively.
The concert repertoire takes in a varied offering of works, including Mozart’s ever-popular Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik; Tchaikovsky’s stirring Serenade Melancolique Op. 26; Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 9 in C Major; and Suite Concertante for Classical Violin, Klezmer Violin and Orchestra by Israeli composer Menahem Wiesenberg. Hoffman performs in the latter work, which was written by one of our foremost contemporary composers who has accrued a highly varied discography and roster of compositions that take in classical music, jazz, Arabic music and Yiddish folk songs.
Hoffman is eagerly anticipating his date with Lerner and the ensemble. He has been plying his klezmerbased fare here for more than a decade. In 2010 he put out At the Black Sea, an intriguing CD recorded with the Trio Carpion of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Avishai Fisz and multi-instrumentalist Gershon Weisenfirer. The album is something of an eclectic magical mystery tour of mainly Eastern European music with a strong klezmer slant, taking in sounds from Romania, Greece, Russia and Azerbaijan, with Yiddish and Hebrew material also making an appearance.
While Hoffman has taken part in a wide range of musical projects over the years, he has never fronted a large ensemble.
“This will be my first time performing as a soloist with an orchestra,” he says. “It is very exciting and pretty challenging.”
The fiddler says he is keen to get on with things and is looking forward to the new genre confluence.
“The work is for two violins playing in two different styles. Zohar is supposed to play in his style, and I am supposed to play in mine,” he explains, adding that the two worlds also break out of their parallel universes. “There are places where we have to come to an agreement, or a compromise, especially when it comes to the rhythm.”
You don’t need to have a doctorate in musicology to appreciate that crucial aspect.
“Like in jazz, the way you play two eighth notes is different from the way you’d play them in classical music,” continues Hoffman. “It’s different with klezmer music, too. The sound of klezmer pretty much comes from the sound of the Yiddish language.
It’s connected to the language and the singing style.”
Yiddish is a highly expressive and flexible form of communication, and that comes through in klezmer as well.
“The rhythm of the Yiddish language is not like a typewriter,” he says, evoking the staccato sonic backdrop of offices of yesteryear. “It ebbs and flows, and there’s all this rubato [rhythmic flexibility]. It rushes forward, and there are a lot of accents on the downbeat of things. In Hebrew you’d say ‘Yom Kippur’ with the accent on the “pur,” while in Yiddish you’d put the accent on the ‘ki.’ There are a lot of words like that. In that respect it’s a bit like English,” he says.
Over the last three decades, Hoffman has accumulated a lot of musical experience. He has dabbled in jazz, has done some sterling work on the theatrical side of the musical tracks, written scores for a silent movie and for musicals, not to mention his adolescent endeavor as a rock guitarist. He graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and co-founded the San Francisco-based music ensemble Davka, which toured extensively and released five CDs of original music, four on John Zorn’s renowned self-styled “radical Jewish music” vehicle, Tzadik. Hoffman also created The Klez-X – formerly the SF Klezmer Experience – which performed widely and recorded 3 CDs, which include many new compositions and modernist settings of Yiddish poetry. His film score work includes pieces written for live performances to accompany the 1920 German Expressionist film The Golem and for the 1925 Soviet comedy Jewish Luck.
The man clearly brings a rich arsenal of skills to his klezmer-based work and is dead set on keeping his principal musical love alive and kicking.
“A klezmer violinist is kind of an interesting thing because, by the 1920s, klezmer had pretty much died out. The klezmer fiddle style disappeared in the 1920s, before klezmer music did its disappearing act worldwide in the 1950s,” he explains.
It seems that amplification technology was getting the better of Hoffman’s instrument.
“It simply wasn’t loud enough,” he says.
“The world got louder.”
Part of that was a side effect of Russian conscription constraints.
“Jews were taken away to the czar’s army for 25 years; and if they actually made it back, they sometimes came back with military instruments, and those instruments took over and influenced the folk music of a lot of styles in Eastern Europe,” he explains.
The instruments were mostly brass, which were capable of producing far more decibels than an unamplified fiddle.
“There were trumpets, trombones and clarinets.
The clarinet took over the lead because it had the ability to mimic not only the styles of singers but also the styles of the violinists.
It can bend notes, and the tone color of a clarinet is a lot closer to a violin than to a lot of other instruments,” he points out.
That doesn’t exactly help the cause of Hoffman and his ilk in keeping the violin at the forefront of Jewish musical endeavor.
“When people think of the Ashkenazi or Jewish European musical style, they usually think of the clarinet, and the art of the klezmer fiddle is still pretty much unknown in Israel,” Hoffman notes.
He adds that protagonists tend to engage in genre frontier hopping, which is not always to the advantage of genuine klezmer artists.
“There are a lot of violinists playing what they call klezmer fiddle, but that is usually a classical violinist playing these familiar melodies in a classical style,” he says.
That includes some of the most illustrious names in the business.
“People will hear someone like Itzhak Perlman play klezmer and they’ll say, ‘Wow! That sounds so klezmer.’ I hear an amazing violinist, but I hear Perlman doing what he does, which is basically classical music and playing those melodies pretty much in his style.
He does a bit of sliding around and gets in a couple of little ornaments here and there, but klezmer is not really his thing, it’s not really his language,” he says.
Wiesenberg is one professional who does manage to embrace different styles and genres, and Hoffman is thrilled to be on board with Lerner and the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble for the Wiesenberg suite ride.
“Menahem is an amazing composer because he puts together a lot of stuff,” says the fiddler. “He’s an amazing classical composer, he’s an amazing jazz composer, and he’s very partial to klezmer because his father was a klezmer musician. And his father’s name was Daniel, too.”
The paternal parallel goes further.
“My father would play klezmer on the piano when he wanted to get the three of us kids running around the house having fun,” Hoffman recalls, although noting that the Wiesenberg-Hoffman Sr. comparison ends there. “My father was also a huge Beethoven fan and thought that music after Beethoven’s time was sort of pointless.”
Wiesenberg has also written Arabic music, including a piece for oud, played by Tayseer Elias, with the composer on piano.
“I don’t think you can find a composer anywhere in the world who compares with Menahem.
I am really looking forward to playing this work with the ensemble,” he says.
Hopefully, it will also help to keep the klezmer fiddle flag flying high.
The Classical Meets Klezmer concerts will take place on January 11 at 8:30 at the Israeli Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv (Tel: 054- 320-3407); and on January 12 at 8:30 p.m. at the Weil Center in Kfar Shmaryahu (Tel: (09) 956-9430).