New spin on old klezmer

New spin on old klezmer

FleytMuzik to perform at Selichot services

A collage of Adrianne Greenbaum and FleytMuzik, her klezmer ensemble. Photos courtesy Adrianne Greenbaum
A collage of Adrianne Greenbaum and FleytMuzik, her klezmer ensemble. Photos courtesy Adrianne Greenbaum

There was something unusual about the request that Adrianne Greenbaum, professor of flute at Mount Holyoke College and a pioneer of the klezmer flute tradition, had seen posted on a music listserv. A woman by the name of Sharon Frant Brooks wrote that she was in possession of a trove of klezmer music her grandfather had brought to America from his band in Dubiecko, Poland. Brooks said she would send it to anyone who could transcribe it and then perform it. 

In general, klezmer is heavy on the clarinet, but this music was written primarily for strings and flutes, and sans clarinet. 

As she is a flutist, Greenbaum could perform the music. She accepted the offer, transcribed it, and will play it at the community Selichot service at Adath Israel Congregation on Sept. 16 with FleytMuzik, her klezmer ensemble of flute, violin, cimbalom, and bass. Appropriately, prior to the prayer service, Edward Alpern of Pennington will screen his film “The Miracle of the Music,” which tells the story of the trove of music from Poland and how it enabled Brooks to visit Dubiecko and put up a plaque in the town square in memory of its forgotten Jews. 

The role of a transcriber is critical to a musical tradition where it is common to quickly write down a piece of music one hears. It’s not an easy skill to master. “It does take a good transcriber to know when there’s a mistake in the music,” Greenbaum said. “You have to understand what is a mistake and what is real.”

Much of the Frant collection was well-known to all klezmorim, and in the whole set, Greenbaum said, “There really are only five pieces in there that none of us knew.” Only one of the pieces in the collection included the name of the composer, though it’s possible that another, “Lechu N’ranenah,” was written by one of the Frants. 

Some unusual songs offered a lesson in the nature of klezmer music and its travel over far-flung areas. One tune was handwritten on paper from the Carl Fischer music company based in New York. Greenbaum theorized that it may reflect a decision by the head musician who visited New York, decided the area wasn’t religious enough, and returned to Europe. 

Greenbaum also discovered a set of tunes which she believed she had heard before. Upon a deep dive into a tour of combined klezmer and Celtic music — “there is some crossover” between the two, she said — she noticed that one of the tunes sounded Scottish. And there was one clue. 

“The title,” she said, “was scrawled in handwriting and started with a fancy C, sort of a legible A, then an L, then maybe a D.” Greenbaum posted a photo of the title online and asked what language it was in — Cyrillic, Polish, English? “Nobody could figure it out until I realized all of the tunes were Scottish,” and the mystery letters spelled “Caledonia, the [Latin] word for Scotland.”

Why did this klezmer band have a set of Scottish tunes, Greenbaum wondered. “You can only conjecture that one of their clients said, ‘We want some Scottish tunes,’” she said. “Or somebody in the band heard this great music and said, ‘Man, I have to put this down.’”

Klezmer protocol is that you play what the client wants, whether it is by Blood, Sweat, and Tears or if it’s the Makarena. “We’re slaves to you,” Greenbaum said. “Our job is to play the music you want,” though she admitted that her band plays mostly traditional klezmer music.

The first time Greenbaum performed the Frant music was at a Shabbaton in 2009, where she selected nine or 10 pieces and played them with violin and piano. She also performed a repertoire in Poland and FleytMuzik played a concert at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in Manhattan.

The word klezmer comes from the Hebrew words klei zemer, “the vessel of song.” “Klei is the vessel, either the person through whom the music is flowing or the instrument.” 

Greenbaum grew up in Akron, Ohio, where, she said, “I was a solid classical musician from kindergarten on up.” When she was still in elementary school, Greenbaum assumed everyone could “identify an A or sing it out of the blue,” until one day when her older sister was listening to someone play the violin and asked Greenbaum, “Oh my goodness, how high is that?” Greenbaum responded, “Don’t you know it’s an F sharp? I thought you knew that.”

Greenbaum earned her bachelor of music from the Oberlin Conservatory and master of music from Yale University. In addition to teaching at Mount Holyoke, she has been principal flute of Orchestra New England and the New Haven Symphony, and she is solo flutist with the Wall Street Chamber Players. 

One of her classical music students opened the door into klezmer for Greenbaum after she heard the student perform with her band at Yiddish Camp on the Mount Holyoke campus. Then Greenbaum started attending KlezKamp, which ran from 1985 to 2015, where her teacher, Frank London, showed her photos of klezmer bands using flutes. She acquired a wooden flute, like those used in the late 19th century in klezmer bands, and in 1997 she became the flute teacher at KlezKamp. She once played an entire klezmer program at the Newport Music Festival, which is largely a classical music event.

The Selichot concert will be based entirely on the FleytMuzik CD, “Farewell to the Homeland Poyln,” whose title piece is Michal Oginski’s famous 1794 Polonaise, familiar to both classical audiences and Polish people. When Greenbaum saw this piece in the Frant folio, she was excited. She says it is “possibly the most gorgeous piece ever written. I knew it, and it already meant a lot to me.”

Although the Selichot concert will follow the same lead sheets used by the Frant Family Band, the concert is arranged by the musicians as they are playing it. As they perform, different instruments take the melody and the harmonies can change. “We don’t play note for note,” Greenbaum said. “No performance is the same as another.”

read more: