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Klezmer’s comeback hits high note with college musicians ˝ Klezmer clarinetist and ethnomusicologist Joel Rubin was showing off what he thought was his best recorded performance of the Eastern European Jewish musical style when his listener gave him a nod of approval. “Oh, that was nice,” she said. “It sounds just like ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’” Oy! Klezmer is so much deeper — and darker — than its “happygo-lucky wedding music” stereotype, says Rubin, who directs the University of Virginia Klezmer Ensemble, which he established a decade ago. If you’re intrigued to hear the music — which originated with itinerant professional wedding musicians — played live or want to put your arm to the fiddle or lips to the clarinet, there are student klezmer bands at many American universities. A few, such as the UVA Klezmer Ensemble, offer class credit. Most, such as the Yale Klezmer Band and the Cornell University Klezmer Ensemble (known as CUKE and formed by Rubin), are student-led outfits. Generally, the groups are a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and community members. Numbers ebb and flow as students graduate and migrate elsewhere, as itinerant klezmorim were wont to do. At UVA, the ensemble this year includes a viola, two violins, trombone and keyboards, plus Rubin, an associate professor and director of music performance at the university. The group rehearses four times a week and performs a full-length concert each semester. Guest musicians lead workshops. And the group is often invited to perform off campus. What’s a wedding without a klezmer band, right?

Klezmer was in decline until the ’70s and ’80s, when some musicians sought to bring back Old Country folkways before they were lost to acculturation. Rubin was introduced to klezmer by some of those revivalists 35 years ago and was hooked. “Most people didn’t know what klezmer was back then,” he says. “Today, it’s not exactly a mass market, but it occupies a comfortable niche.”


At Carnegie Mellon University, the eight-member Carnegie Shpil Company holds its rehearsals at the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. The group’s founder, alto saxophonist David Zaidins, formed his first klezmer band to play at his bar mitzvah. Now 25, he kept swinging with the Carnegie Shpil Company even after graduation. “I enjoy the process of listening to the old records,” he said, “and discovering parts of my Jewish history that are lost in today’s culture.” — DAvID HOLzEL 13

Hillel College Guide - Fall 2015