Prom 33: 14th August 2001 – Klezmer & Gypsy Music


David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After last year’s disaster of an ’ethnic’ Prom, “Cuban Night” (with truly atrocious amplification), which attempted to persuade us that a boy-band, Vocal Sampling, was the epitome of the fantastic musical heritage the Caribbean island can offer (which even the main act, Los Locos, could do nothing to improve), it’s good to report that this year’s foray into world-culture was a big success.

Two factors – at least – contributed to this year winning over last. Firstly, the chosen bands are actually good at what they do, and they come from the heritage they were billed as representing. Thus Lakatos is a real gypsy group, headed by Romanian-born, Hungarian-trained Roby Lakatos, who can trace his family ancestry back seven generations to the famous János Bihari (1764-1827), known as the ’Napoleon of the fiddle’, who could count the young Liszt as a fan. In the second half of this late-night Prom, the sound of fiddle and cimbalom was swapped for the distinctive (if modern) sound of clarinet and accordion of Klezmer, the Jewish musical idiom, which shares much of the gypsy’s itinerant and village history. New Yorker, David Krakauer, brought his ’Klezmer Madness’ to the Royal Albert Hall.

Given that their similar histories – the Gypsies moving slowly across Europe from northern India, the Jews forced persistently across the world in the Diaspora – both traditions fit one of the Proms’ themes this year: Exile. That too tied into the evening’s earlier Prom concentrating on the music of Hollywood, particularly the music of the Central European émigrés, in which there is often a determinable folk influence. To go from one to the other – as obviously many did; this second Prom was very well attended – proved an interesting and invigorating choice.

The first 50 minutes belonged to Lakatos, occupying stage left, with Roby’s fiendishly fast fingers defying belief. The printed programme, while informative in general terms, was sketchy as to which pieces we would hear – for Lakatos, six were listed; for Klezmer Madness, David Krakauer would introduce the pieces – so it’s a little difficult to record exactly what we heard. First from Lakatos was Two Guitars, which could be insinuated from the extraordinary pizzicato employed. We were certainly introduced to Roby’s own Symphony, ’The Bird in the Dust’, and his Minuet for Menuhin, although Roby’s pronunciation suggested we would only be getting a ’minute’. Seemingly, Menuhin regularly visited the Brussels restaurant Roby played in, and the musical tribute was more in the mode of Menuhin’s collaborations with Stephane Grappelli. The distinctive, clanking boom of the cimbalom gave the balance an authentic sound, even for works composed recently. Two encores greeted the warm reception.

Given the slightly late start, and the encroaching of midnight, there were a number of exits at the end of Lakatos’s set and throughout Klezmer Madness’s 50 minutes, leaving (at a guess) less than a third of the original audience to hear Krakauer’s sole encore – a traditional tune to send a newly-married couple off into the world. This was a shame because, the pounding of the anachronistic bass guitar apart, the Klezmer numbers were equally beguiling.

Krakauer’s grandfather came from the Ukraine town of Lvov, which – because of the area’s chequered history – is also known as Lemberg; Krakauer visited it in 1991, after communism had collapsed. He wrote a waltz-rhythm piece called Love Song for Lemberg/Lvov which nostalgically recreated happier times, while interrupting the flow with jagged chords, indicating the Soviet horrors and the death of many of the city’s Jews. Traditional tunes played included the slow Der Gasn Nigon (The Street Song) and a medley of dance tunes in B flat. Krakauer also played his tribute to the clarinettist Sidney Bechet – like Lakatos, refashioning in new works the heritage of the past.

All in all, an engaging and winning Prom.

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