On one night last week Itzhak Perlman came onto the Hollywood Bowl stage in his familiar role as super violinist, performing with full orchestra as part of the Bowl’s Ernest Fleischmann gala. Next night he was back, this time as super fiddler, sawing away with indefatigable gusto in a program celebrating his own heritage, the many strands of Eastern European Jewish pop song and dance known today under the collective title of “klezmer.” If the night was balmy, so was the music; a crowd of over 12,000 created one of the Bowl’s legendary pre-concert traffic jams but eventually gained admittance; the old bromide about “dancing in the aisles” this time literally applied.
The klezmer style, remarkably linked in its insistent emotional throb to the cadences of spoken Yiddish, has origins far back in history. By the end of the last century it had spread far beyond the village life immortalized in the “Fiddler on the Roof” stories. Several of Gustav Mahler’s monumental symphonies contain episodes unmistakably tinged by klezmer tunes and harmonies with their emphasis sounds of churning violins and hysterical clarinets. Bela Bartok’s “Contrasts,” composed for Benny Goodman, lured that immortal jazzman into a few moments of klezmer; Russia’s Serge Prokofiev composed “Overture on Jewish Themes” for klezmer musicians he had heard in New York; Georges Enesco’s popular “Romanian Rhapsodies” transported the style almost note for note onto the pop concert stage.
Currently, klezmer is in a time of worldwide rediscovery. Backing Perlman’s loving, virtually nonstop, center stage fiddling were several New York based groups whose reputations currently spread worldwide: the appropriately named “Brave Old World”; the Klezmatics, purveying “soul stirring Jewish roots music for the 21st century”; the manic virtuosity of clarinetist Andy Statman and his Klezmer Orchestra; the 12 member Klezmer Conservatory Band, bringing in a kind of “big band” sound. All four groups gathered around the super fiddler for a roof raising finale that, for all anyone knows, may still be going on.
The evening wasn’t all manic hilarity, however. At one memorable moment, Perlman’s plangent, throbbing solo soared over the ensemble in the mellow old Sabbath song “Shalom Aleichem”; up from the Bowl audience rose the hum of recognition. In that magical moment, the fiddler on the roof seemed transported to a happy place in the Hollywood Hills.