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Spring 2002

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  Jazzed by lively Jewish music,

Everybody dances

by Mae G. Banner

Robin Miller ’81, schoolteacher and klezmer musician
Flutist Robin Miller ’81 has two vivid memories of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “I graduated on that stage, and fifteen years later I came back and played on it,” she says, her face glowing.

     Who wouldn’t be proud? It’s not every day a musician gets to share the stage with acclaimed violinist Itzhak Perlman. As a member of the Boston-based Klezmer Conservatory Band, Miller had the thrill of performing with Perlman in the 1996 klezmer revival concert tour “In the Fiddler’s House”—a tour that included venues as widespread as Wolf Trap, Great Woods, the Ravinia Festival, and Tanglewood, as well as SPAC.

     The concert, which also included sets by the Brave Old World and Andy Statman quartets and the Klezmatics, had its genesis in Krakow, Poland, at the International Yiddish Festival. There, Perlman and the klezmer ensembles from the United States performed in the old Jewish Square. (“It’s beautiful,” Miller recalls. “The square is surrounded by temples that date from 1100 A.D.”) The sojourn to Poland was documented in a PBS special, and, in another iteration, the U.S. tour was recorded live at Radio City Music Hall. The title of this multimedia phenomenon refers to an old Jewish saying: “In the fiddler’s house, everybody dances.”

     Miller was in Saratoga Springs again last July when the eleven-member Klezmer Conservatory Band played a sold-out concert at Skidmore’s Bernhard Theater. Between rehearsals, she recounted her own journey into klezmer. A double major in English and music who had performed classical, jazz, folk, and medieval music at Skidmore, Miller had never played klezmer before. But she credits her Skidmore experience with giving her the confidence to step up and audition when the KCB had an opening for a flute player. “For the audition,” Miller says, “I had to learn a doyne, which is a cantorial-style piece. You learn by listening to tapes, and you have to listen carefully to hear all the nuances. I play bamboo flute, so that helped.” She was also asked to play “Bessarabi,” a big-band arrangement of a Hasidic dance with a difficult piccolo part.

     That was in 1983. She has remained with the band ever since, playing flute and piccolo. She can be heard on the group’s nine CDs—including their recent Dance Me to the End of Love, on which she plays a sweetly mournful flute solo, improvising on a traditional melody. “Our band is eclectic, but traditional,” Miller says. “We have a big-band sound. We’re geared to an older crowd (who remember the folk melodies and Yiddish theater songs), but a whole generation of young people is discovering the music.”

The popular Klezmer Conservatory Band—with flutist Robin Miller ’81 (bottom, right)—is helping fuel the klezmer-music revival in the U.S.
The rediscovery has a strong personal meaning for Miller. “I found out that my maternal grandparents had listened to klezmer on a Yiddish radio station in Brooklyn,” she relates. “I have found my Jewish identity from this band. When I joined, I found a connection to my heritage that I never had before. I’m now much more in tune with my grandparents, whom I never met.”

     This reconnection to a buried past is taking place internationally, as well. Every year Miller travels with the KCB to Krakow for the International Jewish Music Festival. “To have a revival and have it accepted [by the people of Poland] is wonderful,” she states. “Their childhood was a terrible time for anti-Semitism. Being a part of this rejuvenation of music in Eastern Europe has been a healing experience for me.” Many of the young klezmer performers, Miller notes, are not Jewish. “But they are fascinated with the music and learning to play it.”

     The Klezmer Conservatory Band, in fact, has taken an active role in spreading the word about klezmer, presenting educational programs throughout New England and around the country. (For Miller, this component comes naturally: when not performing with the KCB, she teaches seventh-grade English literature and creative writing at Brown Middle School in Newton, Mass.) Through audience participation, students of all ages learn about the history of a Jewish folk music that began in medieval Europe and has enjoyed a certain popularity in America. They learn a bit of Yiddish, identify the stylized cries of the clarinet and fiddle, and learn that sitting still during a KCB concert is all but impossible.

Mae Banner is a freelance writer and arts reviewer in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Editor’s note: The Klezmer Conservatory Band has a foundation to which you can donate old 78-rpm records and sheet music. The foundation has two purposes: to collect and preserve traditional klezmer music and to raise money to support the band’s concerts in nonprofit venues, such as nursing homes.
  Visit www.klezmerconservatory.com or write to 24 Bolton Street, Suite 3L, Somerville, MA 02143.

Roots and renaissance

Historic photos of klezmer bands show only men. “Now,” says flutist Robin Miller ’81, “it’s not a big deal to have women in the band.” In fact, the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s entire front line is female: the clarinetist, vocalist, violinist, and Miller.

Klezmer traces its roots to medieval times, when itinerant musicians played for weddings and festivals throughout Eastern Europe. Absorbing and reflecting melodies and rhythms from Poland to Turkey, and later from Tin Pan Alley to New Orleans, klezmer is a rich stew of folk melodies, Hebrew prayers, Mediterranean beats, and soulful blues. By nature, the music laughs and sobs, often in a single note of the clarinet or fiddle. It has been called the musical equivalent of dance.

Brought to the United States by Eastern European immigrants, klezmer thrived in live performances, recordings, and radio from the late 1800s through the swing-band era. The music began to fade after World War II, perhaps stifled by the homogenizing influence of television or buried under the desires of young people to assimilate to American ways.

In the 1970s, a revival began, sparked by a new generation of musicians and scholars like Hankus Netsky, whose grandfather and uncles had played in klezmer bands in the 1920s and ’30s. Netsky, who chairs the jazz studies department at the New England Conservatory of Music, founded the Klezmer Conservatory Band in 1980. He makes most of the band’s arrangements, often drawing from old recordings and sheet music.

The klezmer renaissance continues to flourish. “There are now between 700 and 1,200 klezmer bands in the United States,” Miller notes, and the KCB is one of the best known. —MGB


© 2002 Skidmore College