UVA’s Klezmer Ensemble blends modern rock with Jewish tradition


On Thursday, traditional Jewish music met contemporary Yiddish rock in a performance by the University of Virginia’s Klezmer Ensemble, celebrating 10 years under the direction of Joel Rubin.

Rubin, an ethnomusicologist and associate professor of music, is widely recognized as a leader in the revival of klezmer music, which flourished in Eastern European Jewish cultures before World War II. It was introduced to North America around the turn of the 20th century, thriving in places like New York.

In the decades following the war, American musicians revived the genre, which was traditionally played at Jewish weddings but proved to have much wider appeal. Rubin, a clarinetist, was a founding member of the klezmer band “Brave Old World,” which The Washington Post called “the first revival supergroup.” Today he continues to perform and teach klezmer music around the world.

On Thursday, Rubin led the UVA ensemble in a concert with Latvian fusion artists Sasha Lurje and Ilya Shneyveys, who traveled to the United States to rehearse and perform with Rubin’s students. Lurje, a vocalist, and Shneyveys, an instrumentalist, have performed around the world with their band “Forshpil,” which offers a rock-tinged take on traditional Jewish music, described by the band as “what it would have sounded like if Pink Floyd and The Doors had previously met at a Jewish wedding.

“They do some really cool stuff with music, and I like to bring different takes on the lore, from different regions and styles so that the students and community of Charlottesville are exposed to those things,” Rubin said.

The UVA ensemble has 13 members, including UVA students, local high school students, and community members. They rehearse twice a week, training for concerts every semester, featuring guest artists like Lurje and Shneyveys.

UVA Today caught up with Rubin to find out more about the band and the musical tradition they love to share.

Q. What are the characteristics of Klezmer music?

A. Klezmer music is very direct, which I think attracts a lot of people. It speaks from the hearts of musicians to the hearts of listeners. A lot of what we do is dance music, very upbeat and fun. There is also a philosophical and introspective side to traditional klezmer music.

Instrumentally, the violin and clarinet are particularly associated with klezmer music. The violin was the main instrument for several centuries, but was supplanted by the clarinet at the end of the 19th century. Klezmer music continued to be played in Europe until the eve of World War II and in America until the 1950s. Then it went into decline until there was a revival in the 1950s. 1970, starting in the United States and spreading internationally. In this revival, the violin regains its place as the major instrument.

Q. Music was traditionally transmitted orally rather than by written notes. How does this influence your approach to teaching new students?

A. I try to teach music by ear as much as possible because it is an oral tradition. Klezmer musicians for the past 100 years have used musical notation, but more as a mnemonic device. It’s similar to how jazz musicians use a sheet with just the melody and chords, with everything else in the performer’s mind.

Q. What appealed to you about your partnership with Lurje and Shneyveys?

A. I tend to hesitate between bringing in long-established musicians who have been playing klezmer for decades and bringing in younger, up-and-coming artists. Sasha and Ilya’s band, Forshpil, has a lot of reggae, funk and jazz fusion influence. They’re a Yiddish psychedelic rock band, but they also do traditional material. Sasha has spent years, almost more than any singer of her generation, studying the ancient style of Yiddish folk singing, working in archives and putting songs together. Both have taken workshops that my colleagues and I teach. They were our students and now they are our colleagues.

Q. How did you get interested in klezmer?

A. It was almost a coincidence. I trained as a clarinettist at the conservatory and that’s what I did until I was around 24 years old. Thanks to a friend I was playing with, I met musicians who were setting up one of the first klezmer groups in the United States. They lent me my first Dave Tarras. record – one of the greatest American klezmer musicians.

That’s how it started, and I found out later that I had some klezmer in my own family. My great-grandfather was probably a klezmer musician. My grandfather was also a musician, even if he was already quite far from the klezmer style. I also grew up with my grandmother singing Yiddish folk songs. When I finally started playing it myself, I felt quite early on a very strong connection to the music that I can’t really explain.

Q. Considering the work of the ensemble after 10 years under your direction, what are you most proud of?

A. I am proud of the series of concerts we have given and the many guests we have brought. I’m also proud of how the band attracts musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds, diverse in both their level of musical experience and their faiths and religions. ethnic origin. Klezmer is Jewish music, but it attracts musicians from all kinds of different backgrounds. I love bringing them all together to play.

Q. Why do you think music appeals to so many ethnicities and races?

A. It’s very emotional music. The true origin of klezmer music is found in Jewish wedding celebrations, so it is very entertaining and festive. You can sing and memorize the melody easily. You can stomp on it, it’s fun. Even the happiest music has a serious edge to it, but the dynamic of playing in a klezmer ensemble is really fun for a lot of people, and our band really enjoys playing with each other.

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