Sholem Aleichem Rov Feidman!

Béla Kovács (b. 1937)

Date of Composition: 2004        Duration: 5 minutes

This delightful work is nothing less than an inspired concert tribute to the amazing tradition of klezmer clarinet.  Klezmer is the traditional music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. From its centuries-old antecedents in the little string bands of the shtetls of the extensive Russian Empire, it has grown to worldwide popularity.  In this country, it was brought by Yiddish-speaking immigrants during the great migrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Once here, the encounter between klezmer musicians and American jazz resulted in mutual exchanges of musical influences. From George Gershwin and Benny Goodman to the Los Angeles studio musicians who played for the familiar early film cartoons, there were nuanced examples of the interchange. In the U.S. there was a resurgence of interest in klezmer, especially in New York City, during the seventies, and that interest has only grown since.

Inextricably bound to the musical characteristics of the chants and rituals of the synagogue, klezmer is the sound of Jewish tradition. There are other influences, as well, bound up in it, including musical traditions of the Roma (formerly called Gypsies) and other Romanian styles. Odd metres, including measures divided 3+3+2, as well as the basic modes of Jewish cantorial chant, with the various placements of the ubiquitous melodic augmented second are fundamental to the style.  The Russian government had restricted the instruments of the klezmorim (klezmer bands) to “soft” instruments for most of klezmer’s history. But after so many Jews had served in the Tsar’s military bands and returned to their shtetls, the violin was gradually replaced by the clarinet as the lead melodic instrument by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Béla Kovács is probably the most well-known and respected Hungarian clarinetist. A master of many genres, from jazz to Mozart, he has been principal clarinet with the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra, as well as the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra since 1956. A graduate of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, he is Professor of Clarinet in both the Franz Liszt Academy and the University of Music and Dramatic arts in Graz, Austria. Renowned for his performances of the classic repertoire, he is a distinguished composer, as well.  And, though the composer of many works for his instrument, he is perhaps best known to concert audiences for his inimitable, immensely appealing paean to klezmer clarinet, Sholem Aleichem Rov Feidman!

Sholem aleichem (“peace be with you”) is the traditional Hebrew salutation and blessing. Kovács’ composition is a salute to the “King of Klezmer,” Giora Feidman, and his title uses the Yiddish variant, along with “rov,” an honorific for “master” or “teacher.” More than any other clarinetist, Feidman exemplifies the instrument, the style, and the cultural tradition. Born in Buenos-Aries in 1936 of Bessarabian Jewish immigrants, Feidman is a fourth-generation klezmer player.  After a successful early career in Argentina as a symphonic and opera orchestra player, he emigrated to join the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.  After almost two decades with that group, he left it to devote himself to the burgeoning klezmer revival. He has been the center of it ever since. Among his many recordings, one may hear him on the film score to Schindler’s List. In his hands, the klezmer clarinet “laughs, sobs, cries, narrates, titillates our deepest emotions… ”

Sholem Aleichem Rov Feidman! is the perfect vehicle for all of that. Opening with a cadenza-like plaint, it soon moves to a largo melody.  In the best tradition of Eastern European music, it gradually moves ahead, incrementally increasing the tempo. And, as it gets faster, the tune is infused with traditional klezmer clarinet licks: scoops that bend the pitch, dazzling groups of facile ornaments, rhythmic asymmetries, and piercing shrieks in the high register. It’s a gripping mélange of the doleful history of the Jewish people, and their brave attempts to find a bit of joy and solace in foot-stomping music.

Program Notes by William E. Runyan

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the Gold Standard Masterworks Concert featuring guest artist Boris Allakhverdyan on February 1, 2020, alongside Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, Alexey Shor’s Verdiana, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5.