There’s nothing quite like an evening of holiday music to get you into the spirit of the season and, if the musicians are as good as the Klezmer Conservatory Band and the setting as compelling as the breathtaking new Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, it doesn’t even matter if the holiday that the music belongs to-in this case Chanukah-isn’t the exact same one that you are slated to celebrate. In fact, it just makes the night that much more memorable and exciting. The KCB’s Oy, Chanukah
program presented in L.A on December 16th was a fun and edifying mix of great musicianship, cultural edification and festivity in the Chanukah tradition.
Led by multi-instrumentalist Hankus Netsky, an instructor in jazz and contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory, the Klezmer Conservatory Band has been dedicated to preserving and presenting Klezmer and Yiddish folk music for over twenty years. Oy Chanukah
featured two sets of music from the group’s entire career (and, by extension, the history of Klezmer) with an emphasis on both the album that shares the program’s name as well as the KCB’s latest release on Rounder Records, A Taste of Paradise
. Performing a mix of vocal and instrumental music in the original language (primarily Yiddish, with one notable exception we will return to), Netsky and/or vocalist Judy Bressler provided helpful and often humorous explications of the history behind and meanings of each song. Some of the jokes were a little road worn-although it was still funny, you knew that Netsky’s description of a piece featuring a solo turn by Brandon Seabrook on banjo as a "Klezmer Deliverance
" with the further observation that it sounded like a "Mel Brooks’ movie" wasn’t an off the cuff remark anymore but part of his regular schtick-but some humor felt more spontaneous, such as Ms. Bressler’s referring to the hall’s post-modern looking organ pipes as "An avant-garde Menorrah" prior to breaking into "Chanukah/ Chanukah, the Festival of Lights" I was really impressed with Disney Hall. This was my first opportunity to check out the venue during a live performance, and I was impressed by how well it lived up to the hype. That said, it wasn’t necessarily the perfect venue for a Klezmer concert. Ballads like "Sholem Tants (Dance of Peace)", a duet between Bressler and Netsky on piano, worked really well in the refined setting, as did the virtuoso-oriented numbers such as cornetist Scott Aruda’s swinging tribute to Mickey Katz’s trumpeter Morris Rosenfeld and especially the one featuring clarinetist Ilene Stahl. Some of the more dance oriented numbers felt just a little bit subdued in the rarefied air of the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with one big exception being the dance medley that closed the first set. Bressler invited the crowd to get up and dance in the aisles, and many people did that and more-a circle of fans danced not only around the aisles but also in front of and ultimately around the stage itself. This was the one instance where the concert hall seemed as swinging as the band and the music they were playing.
The Klezmer Conservatory Band presented a program for Chanukah that entertained the crowd, young and old, religious and secular alike. A personal highlight for me was the band’s encore of Leonard Cohen’s "Dance Me to the End of Love". The music of Leonard Cohen almost invariably reminds me of the late Jim Shepard, a guitarist friend of mine who used to perform his music when I knew him. And what are the holidays-all holidays, really-about, if not remembrance? Some of the more traditionalist fans in the audience seemed a bit puzzled by the selection, not recognizing it. But I noticed a lot of the same people singing the chorus on the way out. Traditions aren’t finite, you know.