The six musicians had endured a long and arduous journey. They had traveled east from St. Petersburg to Siberia and the Pacific communities of Russia, passing through war zones, performing in places as far-flung as Omsk, Tomsk and Harbin. They had been stuck in Shanghai for six months waiting for visas to the United States, and had traveled across oceans and the American West to play in Chicago, Dayton, Cleveland and Boston. Now they were in New York City, ready to play on the fabled stage of Carnegie Hall. And no one in America had ever heard anything like them.
They were the Zimro Ensemble, a Jewish-Russian sextet consisting of a string quartet, piano and clarinet. Their repertoire was a unique blend of classical chamber music and Jewish folk melodies adapted for their instrumentation and their New York concert, which took place on Nov. 1, 1919. That sold-out performance opened doors for Jewish music throughout the classical music world.
Fittingly, that event is being commemorated by a concert, at Carnegie Hall, presented by the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival and featuring David Krakauer on clarinet on Monday, Nov. 4.
“I’ve had this date on my radar for a number of years,” said Aron Zelkowicz in a telephone interview last week. Zelkowicz is the founder and director of the PJMF and a gifted cellist who will be part of the ensemble performing next week.
“The Zimro Ensemble were the first proponents of these composers who incorporated East European Jewish folk material into an art music setting,” he said. “There’s a big gap in the history of Jewish ‘classical’ music, from Salamone Rossi [the great Italian Renaissance composer] to Ernst Bloch [in the 20th century]. These Russian composers and musicians help to bridge that gap.”
Their roots were deep in the city from which they set out. The esteemed music conservatory in St. Petersburg was a hotbed of Jewish musical activity, and the Zimro group was intensely active in that community. They were also staunch early Zionists who saw their musical task as an integral part of the assertion of a Jewish nationalism. Their Chicago performance was a highlight of the 22nd annual convention of the American Zionist Federation, and despite the presence of the cream of American Zionist orators, one journalist wrote that their music “spoke more eloquently than the chosen leaders in their forensic frenzy.”
At the heart of the sextet was clarinetist Simeon Bellison. Krakauer never met Bellison; the Moscow-born virtuoso died in 1953. But he had seen his face many times.
“From my earliest days playing the clarinet, the front of the method book I was taught from had a picture of him,” Krakauer said in a Skype interview last week. “He taught my teacher, Leon Russianoff. The interesting thing is that when I was in my early 20s, my teacher gave me some little Yiddish pieces that were arranged by Bellison for clarinet and piano. They were cute pieces of classical Judaica, very much in the style of the Zimro Ensemble. So I had this connection [to Bellison] even before I got into klezmer.”
Bellison would forego a return to Russia, taking the clarinet chair of what would become the New York Philharmonic. As a performer and teacher, he would shape the style of classical clarinetists for generations to come.
“He taught so many of the major clarinet players in America,” Krakauer said. “He essentially co-created the American school of clarinet playing. The other major figure in that process was David Bonade, who also taught my teacher.”
Musical styles change and a century is a long time when it comes to popular taste. As a consequence, Zelkowicz noted, it was inadvisable to merely repeat the original Zimro program from 1919.
“For a contemporary audience, a little Eastern European Judaica may go a long way,” he said. “We decided not to do a verbatim recreation of the program. We chose to replace some of their selections with later pieces that would look at those musical traditions through a different lens. For instance we included a piece by Jan Radzynski, a Polish-Israeli composer, because I wanted to include some representation of Israeli composers and their use of folk tunes.”
Inevitably, the program will include Sergei Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34.” That supremely inventive and melodic exploration of Jewish musical sounds was not yet written when Zimro played Carnegie Hall for the first time. Prokofiev, who was living in New York City at the time, heard that concert and, having been classmates with the members of the group, offered to compose a “Jewish” piece for them.
“It is the only piece commissioned for all six members of the group,” Zelkowicz said. “It is the only piece associated with Zimro that is known today and, along with Aaron Copland’s clarinet sextet is one of the only pieces in the standard repertoire for this instrumentation.”
Zelkowicz clearly sees his musical mission as being similar to the stated goals of the Zimro Ensemble of a century ago.
“I started the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival with the intention of appealing to a cross-section of the audience,” he concluded. “I wanted to reach people who think they know what Jewish music is, getting them to come to a chamber music concert and finding something they could latch on to. Others will come to be reminded that classical music can be accessible, that it’s not just the same names over and over.
“That’s why I keep bringing David back. Fans of klezmer will come away with an appreciation for the Jewish-themed classical repertoire and fans of classical music will be exposed to something that’s a little off the beaten path.”
“David Krakauer: In the Footsteps of the Zimro Ensemble,” a recital presented by the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, will take place on Monday, Nov. 4, 8 p.m., at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall (Seventh Ave. and 57th Street). For information, go to pjmf.net or call Carnegie Charge, (212) 247-7800.