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KLEZFEST 2001 in ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

By Gene & Ali Kavadlo, USA

With klez camps held in various parts of the United States, why would two musicians from Charlotte, North Carolina choose to go half way around the world to attend KlezFest 2001 in Saint Petersburg, Russia? The answer is quite simple. If you are a Klezmer enthusiast, and you want to experience Klezmer music in a part of the world where the music has its roots, while immersing yourself in a cultural experience far removed from that of the average tourist, then KlezFest is for you.

My wife, Ali, and I spent a glorious two weeks in Saint Petersburg, the highlight being the 5 day KlezFest seminar. Aside from a few faculty members, we were the only Americans in attendance, and it was wonderful. Seminar organizer, Alik Frenkel, and his charming wife, Leka, went out of their way to attend to our needs; providing transportation from the airport upon our arrival; a translator during our entire stay; arranging hotel accommodations for us after the seminar; changing dollars to rubles (with no fees); allowing use of a computer for email; answering numerous questions; providing transportation back to the airport at the conclusion of our stay — and always with good humor. Alik's attitude was "we will solve all problems."

Ali and I are principal players with the Charlotte Symphony, viola and clarinet, respectively. We've had our own Klezmer ensemble since 1984. Having said that, I must say that we were thoroughly impressed with the quality of instruction and high level of musicianship at KlezFest. Musicians from all parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union were dancing, singing, and reveling in their music every day, all day, very often until 3am; then doing it again the next day. We were especially impressed with the young musicians, many of them teenagers, who performed Klezmer repertoire from memory and showed an obvious love for the music and style. A few of the musicians spoke some English, and their English was far better than our Russian; but no matter, we all spoke the same language when it came to the music. We learned a few Russian phrases (DOH-bra-uh OO-tra — good morning), and taught our friends some English as well (see ya later.) It was fun finding creative ways to communicate. We took all our meals together, and, yes, we became extended family.

Certainly the emotional highlight of the week was the final concert on the last night of the seminar. The venue was a spectacular concert hall on Nevsky Prospect, the main avenue in Saint Petersburg. I don't think any klez camp concerts have ever taken place in so glorious a setting. The concert lasted for three hours, but seemed to pass very quickly. The hall was filled to capacity, and just when we thought an emotional peak had been reached, the next performance brought the crowd to a higher emotional level, and they responded lovingly with rhythmic clapping. After the concert, we were treated to a late night dinner at a nearby restaurant, then the white nights cruise on the Neva River. More singing, dancing, vodka, revelry... We arrived back at our hotel around 6am. No, your average tourist will not experience Russia the way we did.

If a purpose of KlezFest is to bring Russian Jews back to their Judaism through Klezmer music, our observation is that organizers of this event (Jewish Community Development Fund in NY) are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. Young people with whom we spoke all mentioned their involvement with Hillel; some were involved with Hillel-sponsored activities that will bring them to America, an experience that they eagerly anticipate. We observed Zalman Mlotek coaching an engaging young boy in the subtleties of singing a Yiddish song, then watched the 14 year old perform it beautifully in concert. We spoke with older musicians who told us that Yiddish was their native tongue. Other people told us how thrilled they were that they could now perform Yiddish music without fear of the consequences, and the audiences were obviously drawn in by the performances.

Any American who is interested in both Klezmer music and a unique cultural experience in Russia should consider attending this annual event, which has been held every summer for the past five years.


This article was published in some American publications.