Major fun, minor key

MRU Conservatory is putting a Klezmer ensemble together

Conservatory - Klezmer Ensemble

Mount Royal Conservatory instructor Frank Rackow (clarinet) plays with The Black Sea. Greg Rumpel (accordion), Robin Tufts (drums) and Jonathan Lewis (violin).

Summertime is wedding season.

From the ceremony to the reception, every wedding celebration involves a variety of cultural and musical traditions. At many nuptials, Jewish or not, the band or DJ will play a subconsciously familiar song like "Hava Nagila," a tune that always gets the wedding guests on the dance floor. What most people don't know, however, is that "Hava Nagila" is an example of Klezmer music, a style that Conservatory instructor Frank Rackow wants to bring more attention to.

"Klezmer is the wedding music of the eastern European Ashkenazi Jews," Rackow states. "From Russia down to the Black Sea, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, up through Poland … (Klezmer) uses traditional Jewish musical modes that are very similar to Middle Eastern ones."

While most on the dance floor might not be thinking through the musical theory behind such catchy festive favourites, Rackow does. "It's Phrygian dominant harmony for those in the know." He smiles and simplifies. "It's joyful music in a minor key."

This wedding season, Mount Royal University Conservatory is offering to build a band with the Klezmer Ensemble Class, running weekly on Thursdays from Sept. 28 to Nov. 2.

Despite not being mainstream fare for all instruments, Rackow says that the form, like the class, is musically inclusive. He identifies that, "The classic instruments have come to be clarinet, violin, accordion, percussion and trumpet. But you can play Klezmer music on any string, brass, wind, and percussion instrument. You can have electric guitar, electric bass … anything."

Traditionally, the Yiddish word klezmer refers to a person who plays Jewish music. "A direct translation," Rackow says, "would be 'instruments or vessels of song.'" The klezmers were an important component in life celebrations like Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, playing a role in the narrative of the celebration.

No stranger to these types of gigs, Rackow, who is a part-time CBC broadcaster and a founding member of Calgary's KlezMerovitz band, is an active musician in the community. As the ensemble's versatile clarinettist and saxophonist, he often has to carry the melody of the songs, so he's connected with the story.

One of his favourites is called the "Broyges Tanz." He explains, "It's a dance of anger and reconciliation where the two mothers-in-law would circle and pretend to work out their issues about their concerns for their children's marriage success."

Despite the drama involved, the band stays tight.

For those considering entering the program, Rackow suggests, "The ideal student would have about an intermediate level of playing on their instrument. Some good sight-reading ability and some ear is required because a lot of it isn't written out. For instance, a doina suite structure could involve some improvisation at the top, then transition into a 3/8 time signature, then into an up-tempo dance."

Edmond Agopian agrees. As the conductor of MRU Conservatory's Calgary Youth Orchestra, he always has his ear out for developing new talent, and one of his fortés is Klezmer music.

"Approximately fifteen years ago I arranged a number of Klezmer tunes for the UCalgary String Quartet. We took that repertoire on tour to Europe and we recorded it on the American label MSR Classics." The recording, titled, "Far Behind I Left My Country - Klezmer and East European Folk Music - Arranged and Composed by Edmond Agopian," was nominated for the Instrumental Group of the Year Award at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and at the Western Canadian Music Awards."

Agopian adds, "Two years ago, I arranged more Klezmer tunes for band and full orchestra and performed those arrangements with the Calgary Youth Orchestra at the Bella Concert Hall."

It's important for an emerging musician to train in many musical styles. Agopian contextualizes, "Klezmer music has been a component in the musical language of a number of classical composers, including Mahler and Shostakovich, and therefore is an important part of general music education."

It's more than studying the notes on the page. Agopian says, "The Klezmer style is about soulful, emotional playing as well as dazzling, exciting and rhythmic playing, and therefore it's a great way to improve one's ability to express musically, to play with excitement, to learn to improvise and embellish and to achieve higher levels of technical mastery on the instrument."

These soon-to-be well-rounded student klezmers (musicians), like The Conservatory itself, will thrive on the diversity of the offering.

The incorporation of diverse musical styles is a strong focus for The Conservatory. It is obviously something Rackow lives and breathes, as his new ensemble is called The Black Sea, which he describes as "a fusion of Klezmer and middle eastern music."

He explains, "I'm working with a lot of Middle Eastern musicians from Iran, Lebanon and Turkey and finding a lot of commonality between the different musical traditions. And it's a lot of fun."

Rackow applauds this fall's diverse musical offerings at the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts. "It's great to see The Conservatory opening up and embracing diverse music like Taiko Drumming and Hindustani song. I think for a lot of people that have some classical training, it frees you up."

Agopian also endorses the marriage of eastern music meeting western instruction. He adds, "It's a reflection of Canada's multicultural musical fabric."

So, during this wedding season, for the sake of everyone forced to listen to the "Summer Lovin' Medley" at every reception, please consider enrolling.

Join in the fun! Learn more about The Conservatory's Klezmer Ensemble.

August 2, 2017
 — Jonathan Love