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George Tsontakis and David Krakauer: Greece meets Klezmer in Troyby Ross Rice

If there’s one thing composer George Tsontakis would like to make clear right off the bat, is that his new work—soon to be performed by the Albany Symphony this month—is NOT the “Klezmer Concerto,” contrary to the ad campaign. The ad folks can be forgiven somewhat, since the featured performer for George’s new clarinet concerto—David Krakauer, one of the world’s premier clarinetists—is perhaps best known for his klezmer expertise.

George laughs. “I keep correcting that! I would say it’s a hybrid of Greek influence—island music, let’s call it—Crete, where my family is from. And klezmer.” The concerto is the product of George’s second residency with the Albany Symphony—the first ending a few years back with a highly successful performance and recording, in tandem with other composers. Symphony Music Director, David Alan Miller knew he had a sure thing getting George back for a solo reprise.

“David (Miller) told me he loves that I write big narrative pieces, the things that tell a story. One of the pieces we did on the first CD was a percussion concerto called Mirologhia (2008), which uses Greek themes and Eastern ideas, and David thought: what a pairing.” There may also have been a subplot. “He also thought he found a way to entice David Krakauer to work with them.”

Well, if that was the plan, it worked. And this concerto and performance are the rewards of a friendship going back over 25 years, when two extraordinarily talented composers/musicians took time to explore their cultural roots together, both finding important touchstones that have defined and informed much of their music ever since. Decades later, a circle is closed as composer and virtuoso unite in this new concerto—working title Anafa, which is Greek for “renewing breath.” And make no mistake, there will be klezmer.

I’ve just watched one of David Krakauer’s groups—Abraham Inc.—on YouTube, and I feel like busting a move. The rhythm section is laying down a sweet fatback groove, tight horn section, there’s a dreadlocked hip-hop poet—Socalled, from Montreal—working the crowd. And there’s David playing some wild trills, bursts, and cool overtone-y stuff on the clarinet…while standing next to none other than the legendary Fred Wesley, James Brown’s trombone man. And it’s working, this klezmer/old school funk/hip hop mish mash. I could not possibly explain why. Must be because it’s just really good.

David’s on the phone, just back from a couple of weeks in France, Switzerland, and Germany with Abraham Inc. He’s a little jet lagged, but, a seasoned pro, never lets on. He’s understandably jazzed about the tour, and who wouldn’t be, hanging and jamming with Fred Wesley for appreciative European crowds? Still, can’t help wondering, with all the choices, what brought him to an instrument that is—frankly—as somewhat unfashionable as the clarinet?

It started with his violinist mom declaring him “over the hill” for starting the violin—at age 10—and suggesting either the clarinet or flute, instead. In that exact order. “So I started the clarinet, but interestingly enough, when I was about eleven, sort of into it, starting to play at elementary school, I got a record of Sidney Bechet, and when I heard Sidney Bechet I went, ‘Oh my God!’ This guy, he’s telling stories, he’s talking on the clarinet and soprano sax. This was a real voice.” This led to a fascination with jazz that had him out and about in the early 70s, digging Monk, Mingus, Duke….live, in person. Meanwhile, he jammed with his buddy, pianist Anthony Coleman, while studying at the High School of Music and Art.

But later, after college, David went full-time into classical, later joining the Aspen Wind Quintet, performing with them in the early 80s. That’s how he met George Tsontakis, who had written a work for the group, and the two hit it off. “George said it would be really fun to write a piece for me. Because he knew I was sort of searching—this was 1986, approximately. I hadn’t really quite found the klezmer thing yet, but there were these amazing events put on by what is now called the Center for Traditional Music and Arts. It was called the Ethnic Folk Art Center, or the Balkan Folk Art Center back then. They put on great concerts.” George and David were experiencing the real practitioners of Eastern and Southern European folk music and loving it: Greek, Macedonian, Albanian. “I went a couple of times with George; I think we got inspired. Well, he got inspired to write this piece.” George, at the time, was the conductor for the Metropolitan Greek Chorus. The piece David refers to was a work for clarinet and a cappella chorus, performed at Alice Tully Hall. (Not klezmer.)

“The inspiration for that piece came from going to those concerts, but also from going to a Greek nightclub in Astoria, and hearing this guy named Petras Kalivas play. We were both freaking out.” David realized he had been missing improvising, and suddenly he had found a style that could incorporate all of his interests. “I had probably five or six experiences that led me to klezmer music, and this was definitely one of them, in the sense of my looking for this ethnic style, looking for music off the page. I guess I always wanted to find my own authenticity. In that sense, I think I ultimately landed with klezmer because it seemed to me like—well, it was—the music of my ancestry, Eastern European Jewish celebration music. Something about my grandmother’s voice, (the way) she spoke English with a heavy Yiddish accent. There was something that I was finding in klezmer music. I was also just meeting people and really having a chance to explore my own Judaism.”

Couldn’t have timed it better. “In 1987, 88, I was starting to play klezmer music, just for fun. I kind of considered it a musical hobby. And then the group, The Klezmatics, heard about me. I went to Europe with them, and suddenly, there we were, playing for a thousand dancing, screaming, partying Germans—awesome!” Two albums with The Klezmatics, and a multi-group collaboration with Itzhak Perlman followed. After working with the Kronos Quartet in 1996 on a work for klezmer clarinet and string quartet titled Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, David quit The Klezmatics to work on his own Klezmer Madness, and the gigs kept coming in. He hasn’t looked back since. He can stay as busy as he wants to these days, with numerous projects and performances in the coming years already booked.

“It’s no coincidence that in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the opening up of Eastern Europe, maybe even enough time after the Holocaust, I think that Jewish people all over the world—and also non-Jewish—were able to look at this stuff in the face. And suddenly Europeans were going: wow, we used to have Jews here! As Europe struggled with all those kinds of things, we were able to say: Jews were the multicultural Europeans before the war. We (The Klezmatics) were representing them by playing Jewish music. That was a very interesting side of playing klezmer, and continues to be. We can be political without waving a flag, without getting into polemics. Just playing music with this spirit of openness. That has been absolutely amazing.”

“Concerning George and the Albany Symphony gig, this has come full circle in that we’d had that experience together in the mid 80s, then 25 years later we’ve come together for THIS piece, which also reflects a kind of meeting of the Greek and Jewish. Then there’s George taking klezmer, and sort of putting it through his own personal crazy blender. And the orchestration is going to be incredible.”

“I think it’s about a search for roots, a search for identity, and two people coming together, each one with their individual searches. That feels like a full circle in the sense of our experience.”

George: “The piece is in three sections, over 20 minutes, I don’t know, maybe 23. It begins with a donya, kind of klezmerish with a slow introduction. But then it goes right into a lively kind of Cretan song, with clarinet, and that’s the first movement, mainly Greek/Cretan music.”

“The middle movement, which is the large movement, is slow and very nostalgic, and uses more modern elements. And it’s the centerpiece where I’m most creative. Slow, yearning, using abstractions of Greek and klezmer.”

“The last of the three is totally klezmer, it just breaks out into what you would call the honga, which we think of the “Hava Nagila”—they call that a hora. But actually, honga is a fast klezmer-type of movement, intensifying throughout, just keeps getting crazier. So what you get is a kind of circus, a sandwich where you hear an introduction of fast Greek, ending with klezmer. And, in fact, the last movement is called “Bir-Zirk.” ‘Zirk’ is ‘circus’ in Yiddish. David likes that title…”

George clearly has had a great time trying out his array of melodies on David. “I give him a tune, and he’s enlivening it, filtering it through making it klezmer, making it work. There are some very difficult things that he translates into playable form, using the klezmer sound.”

But does working closely with a certain musician with specialized abilities translate to making a concerto accessible to clarinetists perhaps not so attuned to the klezmer style? “Well, this is the magic of David Krakauer. The music can be played classically straight and work. It could be played in a folkish way, which would add a little color.”

“When David plays it, whether it’s Greek, the abstract middle movement, or the klezmer, he has permission to play it in the klezmer mode. So, it’s not my ‘Klezmer Concerto,” it’s his!”

David Krakauer will be the featured soloist with the Albany Symphony for the premiere of George Tsontakis’ Clarinet Concerto, performing as part of the American Music Festival (May 19-22) at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), 110 8th St., Troy,, 518.276.3921, May 21, 7:30 PM

The Albany Symphony will also be premiering George Tsontakis’ Let the River Be Unbroken, at their debut at Carnegie Hall, New York City, as part of the Spring for Music Festival, May 10, 7:30 PM. Visit of call 518.465.4755 for info and tickets.

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