Jewish Music Festival headliners are a pair of clarinet virtuosos

Programmers for the 2012 Jewish Music Festival decided to get on the stick. The licorice stick, that is.

Two festival headliners this year are pre-eminent clarinet virtuosos in the Jewish music world and beyond. Ben Goldberg and Michael Winograd have not only mastered the instrument, but also emerged as composers as well.

In the festival, Goldberg and Winograd will premiere their new works.

At a March 3 concert at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffee House, Winograd and his ensemble will debut new music from a soon-to-be-released CD.

On the following night, also at Freight & Salvage, Goldberg will give the world premiere performance of “Orphic Machine,” a song cycle co-commissioned by the Jewish Music Festival.

A Berkeley resident, Goldberg is best known in Jewish music circles as co-founder of the New Klezmer Trio, a pioneering ensemble of the klezmer revival that flourished in the 1990s. His new jazz-flavored opus stems from the esoteric writings of Allen Grossman, Goldberg’s former literature professor at Johns Hopkins University. Grossman’s primer on poetics, “Summa Lyrica,” deeply influenced Goldberg.

“When I first got the commission, I thought I’d just write instrumental music that had some sort of structural relationship to this amazing book,” Goldberg says. “But when I started to write, I was stumped. I couldn’t figure out how to translate these cryptic sayings. The book is made of aphorisms.”

Aphorism such as: “The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.”

Not exactly Ira Gershwin, but Goldberg felt his mentor’s words generated a kind of propulsion that lent itself to music. So he turned them into songs.

“There’s not a wasted word in them,” he says of Grossman’s writings. “If you want to write a song out of his words you have to start pulling and pushing on them, especially words not set out metrically to work in 4/4 time.”

Though his former trio consisted of traditional klezmer instruments — clarinet, bass and accordion — Goldberg’s expansive new piece includes parts for the very unklezmer vibraphone and tenor sax. Musically it reflects Goldberg’s strong jazz leanings.

Still, Goldberg is the first to admit, you can take the clarinetist out of klezmer, but you can’t take the klezmer out of the clarinetist.

Michael Winograd photo/courtesy of jewish music festival

“The sounds of Jewish music and klezmer are deep inside of me,” he says. “I couldn’t get away from those if I tried. My whole musical life has been involved with getting inside that stuff and finding out what’s in them. I’m not worried about making sure there’s a Jewish sound in my music.”

Winograd could say the same. The New York City resident will take the festival stage to perform mostly original klezmer pieces, accompanied by a six-piece band that includes singer Judith Berkson, recipient of a prestigious National Foundation for Jewish Culture fellowship.

Some of the tunes originated in Jewish Ukrainian songs collected more than 100 years ago. For others, sung in Yiddish, Winograd collaborated with lyricists who know the Mamaloshen and strive to keep the language alive.

Winograd tends to stick more closely to traditional Jewish modes than does Goldberg, but he, too, lets in outside influences, from jazz to classical minimalists such as Steve Reich.

He’s only following what klezmer musicians have always done. More than a century ago, itinerant Jewish musicians in eastern Europe borrowed from the Turkish, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Moldovan tunes they heard on the road.

“Now we say that’s traditional,” Winograd points out. “That is the canon of klezmer, and even using the word ‘traditional’ comes with issues. All these tunes had to be written by someone.”

Winograd says playing klezmer music can accentuate one’s Jewish identity. He grew up in an observant household in Long Island, N.Y., but when he got into klezmer music as a teen, he gradually dropped his observance, replaced by the music.

“When I got involved in the klezmer community, that became Jewish for me,” he says. “Ultimately, klezmer isn’t just music, not just a language; it’s a culture, a real Jewish life going on.”

Goldberg has a similar tale. Though he studied classical clarinet through college, a 1985 private lesson from Klezmorim clarinetist Steve Lacy changed his artistic direction. From there he went on to form the New Klezmer Trio, which he calls the “Big Bang” of his musical life.

“All of a sudden there was a strong purpose,” he says. “I knew exactly what I needed to do at the moment.”

Though he eschews the klezmer label, Goldberg still reveres that music. He says there’s much more going on in the music besides style. It’s something he describes as “friction.”

“It pushes ahead of the beat, pulls way behind the beat and scurries around,” he says. “It’s nudging. It’s Jewish consciousness, the Jewish way of doing things.”

Michael Winograd Ensemble with Judith Berkson, 8 p.m. March 3. Ben Goldberg, 8 p.m. March 4. Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. $23-$26. (510) 848-0237 or www.jewishmusicfestival.org

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.