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Friday, August 17, 2018

East Side Story

SASHA MARGOLIS IS A VERSATILE VIOLINIST, an accomplished actor, a witty novelist – but at heart he’s a tummler. He wants you to enjoy yourself, and he’s going to make you laugh along the way. His summer gig is playing violin in the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra. As he has done in previous summers, he gave the audience a single performance of a different kind of show. Margolis leads a klezmer band called Big Galute, a five-piece ensemble that spreads this unique style of music into the classical world and beyond.

Sasha Margolis, Mary Hangley,
Richard Sosinsky, and Robin Seletsky.
Photo by Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival
Their performance at the Glimmerglass Festival on Tuesday, August 14, followed a matinee of “West Side Story” and so, as is their tradition, they saluted the piece in their finale. But it wasn’t only Bernstein whose music was tweaked. Brahms entered the Gypsy realm with his set of Hungarian Dances, inspired, Margolis explained, by the composer’s evenings in a coffeehouse where such music was played – and at a time when the terms Hungarian and Gypsy were used interchangeably to describe music heavily influenced by Jewish tradition.

Thus we were treated to Brahms’s Dances Nos. 17, 11, and the superstar 5. It’s amazing how much a work’s character changes when you add an accordion oomph on the off-beats. With mandolin adding atmosphere to the slow intro, the piece soon took off with a clarinet lead and accompanying figures from the fiddle. The next dance had a theorbo in its rhythm section, the outsized instruments twangy sound giving a bluegrass feel. Brahms didn’t write clarinet glissando into the piece, but I’m sure he would have approved, especially when he had enough caffeine in his system. And 5 is 5, which means you have to equal or better every version of it that’s ever been featured in cartoon or commercial, and this they did.

But the soul of klezmer is a Jewish song of emotional gusto, where joy and melancholy coexist. The concert began with a cry from the clarinet, taking the lead in a traditional tune called “Bulgar No. 3,” bulgar referring both to the tune and its lively, syncopated rhythm. Clarinetist Robin Seletsky, who played as principal in the Glimmerglass orchestra for many years, quickly proved her versatility as she made her instrument sing with what seems like effortless ease. Which speaks also to heredity: she’s the daughter of Harold Seletsky, who was known as the Prez of Klez, and who wrote “Big Galute Freylekh No. 5,” which followed.*

Sasha then introduced the concert by noting the wish to pay tribute to the current Glimmerglass season. The folksong-derived melodies by Janáček (composer of “The Cunning Little Vixen”) could be appropriate, he suggested, “but we haven’t learned to play in the major keys.” He did suggest that Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” could have been re-imagined as “The Moyl of Seville,” with attendant incisive puns, none of which he cut short. His commentary was accompanied by a quiet rhythmic vamp, always a nice touch.

Accordionist Mark Rubinstein switched to tambourine for the next number, a possibly Turkish tune they have dubbed “Levant I,” and this was also when we discovered that bassist Richard Sosinsky doubles on mandolin. Seletsky doubles without even putting down her instrument, as we heard in the traditional “Gasn nign,” or street improvisation: She invokes the chalumeau with her silken low-register tones.

“Whose horse is this?” asked the next number (“Ci ze su to konie”), a Moravian-influenced song with lyrics that the audience was exhorted to sing along with the band members – and which they tried to do, but even with syllable-by-syllable coaching it’s a bear. We contented ourselves with la-la-las and hand-clapping. “Trello Hasaposerviko,” or “Butcher’s Dance,” is a very up-tempo number in a Serbian style that becomes tough to sit through, insofar as you really do want to get up and dance to a song like this.

Mary Hangley is a member of the Festival’s Young Artists Program, singing the role of Anna in the production of “Silent Night.” She lent her excellent voice to two art songs with roots in Vienna: Korngold’s “Come Away Death” and Schoenberg’s “Mahnung” from his cabaret cycle “Brettl-Lieder.” Not surprisingly, they were a terrific contrast to the material thus far, and enriching in that contrast, resetting, as it did, our perception of songs like this, with their comparatively muted but unmistakable Jewish roots. Guitarist Michael Leopold again switched to theorbo, which again was unexpectedly perfect in this role.

Following the three Hungarian Dances, Margolis introduced the finale, honoring the honest-to-goodness original idea behind “West Side Story”: a conflict between Irish and Jews. They titled their pastiche “East Side Story,” and cast Margolis as the Irishman, complete with towering cartoon hat, singing (what else?)  “I Feel Thirsty,” and Seletsky as the Jewish girl who bonds with her opponent over a shared love of corned beef. It was a complicated sequence, filled with clever lyric rewrites that didn’t always sparkle, and clearly in need of more rehearsal time to coordinate the fast-paced elements. But the band – with Leopold now on electric guitar – was never less than first-rate.

Given the choice, I would have been happy to hear less Brahms and more traditional klezmer, but I applaud the mixture of styles, which is a tribute to the dedication and virtuosity of this ensemble.

Big Galute
Glimmerglass Festival Pavilion
August 14, 2018

*It’s tricky tracking the roots of a song, but that title reminded me of a tune called “Frailach in Swing,” recorded by trumpeter Ziggy Elman’s band in 1938. Elman adapted it from a 1917 Abe Schwartz recording of “Der Shtiller Bulgar,” itself drawn from a klezmer tune published as “Frailach No. 15.” Elman’s tune was given lyrics by Johnny Mercer and titled “And the Angels Sing,” the Benny Goodman recording of which – with Elman’s bulgar break driving it – hit number one on the charts for five weeks.

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