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A Holiday called KlezFest, Kiev, 2002

[Note: This article was posted to jewish-music mailing list, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

On June 28 - August 2, an International festival of klezmer music "Klezfest in Ukraine, 2002" was taking place in Kiev.

"Di kale shemt zich take, ober hanoye hot zi" - "A bride feels shy but enjoys herself".

I believe this funny wedding saying well characterizes the feelings the Jews had back in the Soviet times when they listened to their folk melodies. And the key word in this phrase is "feeling shy".

Baruch haShem, the situation is different today. The hall of the Children's Kiev Music Theater was packed. The audience received every item of the final concert of the festival of klezmer music "Klezfest in Ukraine, 2002" freely and joyfully. And there was a lot to listen to that night. The first part of the concert showed the premiere of a unique program for Ukraine - the "Ghetto Tango" performed by one of the world's best singers in Yiddish Adrienne Cooper from New York and Zalmen Mlotek, pianist, artis tic director of the Jewish theater "Folksbineh" in Broadway. There were a lot of tragic pages in the history of our nation, and they can be told in a song in such a way that listeners do not only cry but can also feel proud of their people. That is how Adrienne sang of the ghetto drama.

Fun began after the break, during which Jews from Kiev and their guests from all over Ukraine exchanged not only their impressions but also the latest news. The fun was real - bright, contagious, calling to dance... The fashion was set by an orchestra led by virtuoso clarinetist Merlin Shepard from London, Great Britain. His orchestra's performance was followed by solo items and instrumental trios, quartets and quintets. During the Klezfest days I could see such bands created by musicians from various cit ies and countries after only one or two rehearsals. And all of this is due to the fact that according to tradition, true masters come to this musical festival, many of which have graduated from conservatoires.

Let me remind here that Klezfest is not a competition, but a seminar, with master classes of worldwide famous musicians whom I named earlier. Absence of any fight for places or diplomas adds it the unique atmosphere of solidarity and cooperation. Besides, Klezfest is also a school of yiddishkait. Master classes in music, singing and dancing are mixed with classes in Yiddish and extremely interesting lectures on the Jewish culture. However, how can I describe with mere words "seminar" and "classes" the atm osphere of a holiday that reigned over the "Dubek" health center outside Kiev from morning till morning when spontaneous session concerts would finish? I could not help wondering how much energy had both beginners and experienced in store to hold out such unforgettable holidays of improvisation. I deliberately keep to myself the names of all these people because there were so many of them that I am afraid to offend some by forgetting to mention their names. Let me say just one thing - they all did a wonde rful job. It relates to both masters and beginners. They created the atmosphere of a real holiday, which, according to one very good author, always stays with you.

However, it is not only festive thoughts that Klezfest awakes in one's mind. When a nice presenter appeared on the stage to announce the beginning of the concert, I suddenly remembered a music-related joke of the Soviet times. At a concert devoted to an anniversary of formation of the USSR, the compere announces, "And now, you will listen to the "Friendship of Nations" band, consisting of: Ivan Petrov (Russia), Petro Kolovorotko (Ukraine), Jemal Japaridze (Georgia), and Moishe Goldstein (double bass)!"

Today, our musicians have a chance to perform in bands under Jewish names; they play Jewish rather than some "friendship-of-nations" kind of music. Moreover, Alexander Ivanov from the Samara band "Aliya" took part in Klezfest this year. He went to conservatoire at the same time as famous musicians Bashmet and Spivakov did. And you should see the enjoyment this virtuoso violin-player performed Jewish melodies with! We have lived to see the time when people of other nations perform Jewish music. And it is w onderful despite the fact that such times are not very simple and often even very difficult.

In the memoirs of Yevgeny Yevtushenko I once found an interesting observation, "In Russia, even anti-Semites enjoy dancing "7:40". Well, I don't know about anti-Semites, but I have repeatedly seen great enthusiasm when this dance is performed by a band of people belonging to various ethnic groups. And may "7:40" be not the peak of Jewish musical culture, and may not every expert like it very much... It is not the main thing. The main thing is that music in today's world can become a bridge to mutual unde rstanding between people of different nationalities. And klezmer music is part of this bridge.

I discussed these things more than once with Yana and Boris Yanover, who have been making every effort for the third year in a row to organize Klezfest in Ukraine at the highest level possible. We continued our discussion during the recent festival as well.

What was the year between the two Klezfests like for you? I asked them

Last time we met to discuss Klezfest, we said that we would like to see those performers who took part in the festival show their skills in many cities of Ukraine and abroad. To some extent, we managed to show our best actors in Kiev. These were "Kharkov Klezmer Band", "Khaverim" from Simferopol, a band from Zaporozhya, and the orchestra of Leo Feldman from Chernovtsy. Unfortunately, they never had a solo concert, but always played as part of concerts devoted to different events in Jewish communities and to Jewish holidays. We would like to have real tours and we hope we will be able to organize them.

Over the past year we have also created a website devoted to klezmer music. It covers musical and festival life, tells about new songs; the notes of interesting songs can be found there. We keep in touch with every musician and singer who took part in our festival as well as with our foreign colleagues, first of all with those who organize similar festivals in St. Petersburg, London, New York, and Canada. We are glad that this year we found even more friends among the lovers of klezmer music. For the firs t time we held the festival in Kiev. It was a great privilege for us. On the other hand, we worried a lot about how it would go, especially the gala concert. But it looks like everything went fine.

How many new participants joined the recent Klezfest?

Approximately one third of the total number. We are happy to see a lot of young people who are interested in folk music and songs in Yiddish. We are very grateful to people and organizations who supported us once more. First of all, it was our general sponsor, the Jewish Community Development Fund in Russia and Ukraine and its director Martin Horwitz. We are also grateful to our other sponsors - the Jewish Agency "Sohnut-Ukraine" , Public affairs section at Us embassy in Ukraine, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the International Charitable foundation "Good News" . We are also grateful to our information sponsors, who were covering Klezfest and our inter-festival work during the whole year: newspapers "Einikait" and "Jewish Observer".

We have also put out an audiotape with the best of "Klezfest in Ukraine, 2001".

After the previous Klezfest we held out a great concert in Tallinn on invitation of the local Jewish community. Our Klezfest was represented by the Kharkov band and Marina Yakubovich with her wonderful voice. We are very grateful to Timur Fishel and our Estonian friends who had organized this trip.

Last spring we met in Chicago with famous klezmer musicians and discussed the opportunity of coming of our Klezfest participants to America. I hope we will be able to accomplish this plan. Anyway, the quartet "Ashkenazim" from Kazan, our standing Klezfest participant, has already given a performance in the United States.

We would like to thank you, Mikhail, for the fact that materials about Klezfest appeared not only in the Ukrainian, but also in the Israeli and the American press.

Klezfest participants like this festival because there are no elements of competition in it. That is why the atmosphere there is friendlier, especially during sessions. However, would you ever like to have a competition too, first of all, for young musicians and singers?

As you know, Klezfest is not a mere festival or seminar. High-class musicians playing in serious orchestras and soloists come together here. Another thing is that some of our participants have only recently begun to play klezmer music. And they are interested in the experience of masters of this genre. There is a great difference in the ages of participants: from 16 to 80 years old. So, if we ever have a competition, we will probably have to make a gradation, divide participants into juniors, seniors, etc . We may reach this stage some time, but right now, as they say, let's have "flies and cutlets separately".

Yes, in the future we may be able to have competitions following the pattern of international festivals, with the first, second, and third rounds, having stars come and perform at the gala-concert. But right now we would like to have festivals that unite people. We are attracted by the brotherhood of musicians and singers from all cities and countries where the Jewish culture is being reborn.

And we do have a competition to some extent. For, let's say, at the Tchaikovsky International Competition, those who have been selected and invited to Moscow are, in a sense, winners. We also select one-third out of approximately one hundred applications. So, those who are invited to take part in Klezfest can be considered winners too. But the idea of having a competition is not bad. We will think about it. We just hope we will have enough strength.

Founder of Chassidism, wise and righteous man, Baal Shem Tov, taught that one should avoid fasting too much, wearing rags and exercising other ascetic practices. He insisted that liveliness and joy are more pleasing to the Almighty than asceticism, despair, and low spirits.

"Only through simchah can we reach oneness with God" Besht said. And it is such simchah that we find in klezmer music.

A chisorn - di kale is tsu shein: The bride has a defect - she is too beautiful.

As to me, this "defect" is the main characteristic of the joyous festival called Klezfest!

Mikhail Frenkel

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Contents copyright © 2002 by Mikhail Frenkel. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 11 June, 2007.