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Klezfest St. Petersburg 2008: Success Against All Odds
In the summer of 1997, the Jewish Community Center of St. Petersburg held its first annual Klezfest St. Petersburg, the now world-famous festival of traditional East-European Jewish music. Initially envisioned as an educational program for musicians from the newly established Jewish communities of the former USSR, Klezfest has since grown into one of the premier international music forums, where klezmorim from all over the world gather, share experiences, and, best of all, play Jewish music together. Klezfest concerts have become an integral part of St. Petersburg cultural life and a "calling card" for the city's Jewish community. It is no surprise that the Lonely Planet guidebook to Russia mentions only two Jewish "objects" in all of St. Petersburg—the Grand Choral Synagogue and Klezfest.
In 2008, the Jewish Community Center of St. Petersburg faced considerable difficulties in organizing Klezfest. Because foreign funding agencies declined to support the festival, there was a danger that Klezfest would not take place in St. Petersburg at all. However, the festival organizers could not bear the thought of depriving St. Petersburg audiences of their beloved festival. Outstanding effort went into preparation and our listening public had the pleasure of attending Klezfest after all, albeit on a lower scale than usual. This year, Klezfest was organized with the support of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Approximately thirty performers from the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Latvia appeared on the stage of the prestigious Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, the traditional venue for Klezfest concerts. The audience was delighted by Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauer, renowned connoisseurs of the traditional Yiddish style, who traveled all the way from New York to give their debut performance in St. Petersburg. Another duo, comprised of Latvian accordionist Ilya Shneiweiss and American clarinetist Zoe Christiansen, impressed music lovers with their experimental approach to Klezmer music. The Klezfest stage also welcomed Klezmer star Lorin Sklamberg, the frontman for the New York-based Klezmatics, as well as singer Yefim Chorny from Kishinev, who has won the hearts of the St. Petersburg public, and Moscow-based poet and singer Psoy Korolenko, the much-adored favorite of young audiences. Many, many other talented musicians performed as well.
This year, as every year before, Klezfest St. Petersburg was noted for the high quality of festival performance, the diversity of genres and styles, the environment of creativity and inspiration, and the devotion to Jewish musical heritage. This unique atmosphere united musicians from around the globe with spectators so numerous, that they filled the concert hall until not an inch of space remained. The festival culminated in the traditional KlezBoatRide that tours the rivers and canals of "Venice of the North." Jewish melodies resounded under the open bridges of this great city, symbolizing the resilience of Klezfest St. Petersburg in the face of obstacles and the determination of the Klezfest team to continue its mission.
Published in the Bulletin for St. Petersburg of the Russian Jewish Congress, Issue 10, June 2008