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Klezfest St. Petersburg: Excerpts from a journal
By Adrienne Cooper, New York
Landed in St. Petersburg in the arms of our now familiar, phenominally effective and gracious host and co-worker, Alik Frenkel, the head of the Jewish Community Center of St. Petersburg, who judiciously and imaginatively draws musicians from across Russia for a week of concerts, classes and community-building among young, talented, committed teachers and performers. I teach in seminars similar to this in format throughout the US, Canada and Western Europe — and this week in Russia, these participants, are the most enthusiastic, most consistently high-level, emotionally engaged, imaginatively free and expressive of all the Jewish musicians I encounter. I feel blessed to be involved with them and with this program.
I opt not to go directly to the hotel, but to join a tour of Jewish St. Petersburg already in progress. So we head straight for the Chor-shul, the great synagogue constructed to accommodate the great cantorial and choral music of late 19th century Eastern Europe. Soon the students and fellow faculty join us, among them Andrey Bredshtein, a Judaica librarian from Moscow, one of the Yiddish language instructors in Klezfest, whom I first met through his insightful questions delivered from the back row of the Yiddish song class I conduct each summer as part of Columbia University's intensive Yiddish language and culture course. The appearance of a fondly remembered face in a new geographic context is exciting. We are increasingly a world-wide community of Yiddish life-long learners, become teachers, become colleagues and collaborators, one of the most productive features of the recent support for studying and presenting Yiddish music.
And then, the next evening after a first day of classes and brief rehearsals, the teachers and students present a concert at Chesed Avraham, the social welfare center of St. Petersburg. And we are able to hear the results of last year's teaching in the students we know and to get a sense of the new students. I am struck by a feeling that these young people come to Yiddish folk music from very near its' source. There is something in their voices, their body language and their sensibility that demonstrates authenticity, even the novices among them. This is less so for the instrumentalists, all great technicians on their instruments and wonderful temperaments, but with little contact with Jewish modes, ornamentation and inflection. But, give them a hint and they're off and running. My colleagues, Zalmen Mlotek, the remarkable pianist, arranger, and choral conductor, Merlin Shepherd, the brilliant Welsh klezmer clarinetist and I are in heaven with such students. Fabulous musicianship, wonderful stage skills, eager to share with audiences, and eager learners in their classroom, modest, smart, and hungry for contact with experts. They treasure the recordings and books that we bring — materials are sold for below cost, and then as the course goes on we are giving away our own books, source recordings, encouraging them to dub for their friends. When I see them, I know what they need, and kick myself for not getting a donation of more books and recordings for them. I'm grateful that I stuffed duplicate CDs and tapes from my own collection into my bags, but they are not enough.
What we learned last year is reinforced again — there is substantial Jewish community here. Our students are not only outstanding musicians in their communities, but crucial cultural workers, part of an effort to maintain creative Jewish community across Russia and the former Soviet Republics. When we ask them about rise in anti-Semitism, they downplay what we have heard. They tell us they feel a bit more vulnerable as a result of the rise in Russian nationalism that accompanied the NATO bombing of Belgrade, but they anticipate this will fade. They are committed to a future for Jews in Russia and I increasingly understand the legitimacy, the holiness of "Goles", the glorious Jewish cultural territory established wherever in the world Jews chose to live and to give expression to their Jewishness. I want to give them all the cultural tools I am capable of conveying and to show them an example of a Jewish life lived in another corner of "Goles" (the galut).
A couple of American women have come to the course, nascent singers and cultural activists, just finding themselves in America, but here among newfound Russian friends, they are encouraged, warmly received and are given performance opportunities they never dreamed of. A Swedish doctor also paid his own way, and is a learned and enthusiastic participant. These three seem a good start to drawing together a diverse community of participants and building support for the growth of the program. It seems a shame that only some 35 participants, from among some 100 applicants from the former Soviet lands can be accommodated. And it is an arduous thrill to take to the road after the course and bring concerts to outlying, little served Jewish communities in Pskov and Novgorod. The bus, I assume we could afford, is unairconditioned, its in the high 80s inside and outside, the roads ill-paved but the audiences riveted, thrilled and responsive, speaking with us afterwards in jumbles of Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian, eyes shining among both the young and the elderly in these diverse audiences. We get them on their feet dancing in Novgorod, in the Symphony Hall, the largest concert of the week.
The intimacy that is forged with these students is like nothing else I've experienced. The sight of Zalmen on a piano bench for four hours late at night, in a kind of private seminar with one of the most promising of the pianists, Marina Lebenson, a woman of endless skill and imagination. The sound that lingers in my ear of Polina Achkenazi, a singer and pianist from Kazan, with a modest, passionate, pure folk song interpretation that helps me understand what Jewish music in this country sounded like a century ago. The subtle and brilliant Alina Ivakh, an actress and television talk-show host in Kazan who delivers refined, thoughtful, riveting performances and with whom I spend long hours in extra sessions. Alexander and Eugeny, both in their early twenties, just finishing conservatory in Odessa, have invented brilliant eclectic arrangements of Yiddish songs and instrumental music, ranging from a neo-romantic version of a simple Yiddish love-song that makes it sound like a part of Schubert's Winterreisse to jazz inflected piano and sax neo-klezmer inventions. We grow from our contact with such "students" and in the course of a week, we see and hear them leap ahead, but the music is only part of it. The murmurs in embraces after performance about what they see and hear in us, what they learn from the faculty performances, what they feel in receiving response in the master classes, the resonance of contact with us as artists and as brief companions for these nine days, tips occasionally as well into longing for family emigrated to America, Israel, and elsewhere. But they are here where they have chosen to remain, re-seeding a new level of Jewish culture where it once flourished and we who teach them, support them, care for them in this endeavor receive as much as we give.
Originally published on the American Jewish World Service's site