Duke Ellington once said that there are only two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind. It follows that the good stuff ought to come in a variety of forms. To name but a few: There’s the stuff that lives on the page, crafted by a particularly inspired composer; there’s the stuff that lives in the moment, as performed by a particularly inspired musician, and there’s the stuff that is both of those things rolled into one.
Clarinetist David Krakauer’s reading of “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” by Argentine Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov, on March 10 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was just that: a perfect pairing of worker and work. It was also a striking reminder of the fact that when we talk about a favorite piece of music, we’re usually talking about a favorite performance, a felicitous combination of content and delivery.
According to Krakauer, Golijov first wrote the piece as a clarinet quintet for Giora Fiedman and the Cleveland String Quartet. When the Cleveland quartet disbanded, the Kronos Quartet inherited the work and enlisted Krakauer as a soloist.
Golijov recently re-orchestrated the work for clarinet and string orchestra. Todd Palmer and the Santa Rosa Symphony unveiled the new version last year, with Krakauer and the Brooklyn Philharmonic providing the New York premiere.
Until 2009, Palmer and Krakauer are the only soloists authorized to perform the work. And while I feel for those clarinetists who might like to take a crack at it before then, after hearing Krakauer I’m not in a hurry to hear someone else in the lead role.
Golijov, whose tango-inflected “Last Round” opened the program, is much admired for his ability to combine contemporary classical music with other traditions. “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” is a fine example; inspired by the 12th-century kabbalist rabbi of Provence, it clothes traditional Jewish music in modernist garb. Golijov himself describes the work’s three main movements as being cast in the three languages of Judaism: Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew.
Krakauer, too, tends to inhabit various musical worlds. Classically trained, with an affinity for jazz, funk and soul, he is best known as a leading figure in contemporary klezmer music. In recent years, he has collaborated with Montreal-based turntablist DJ Socalled on an appealing fusion of klezmer and hip hop.
Krakauer’s polyglot pedigree makes him an ideal vehicle for Golijov’s Jewish triptych: He has the skills of both a top-notch classical performer and a top-drawer klezmer musician, all of which are required for a full-blooded reading of the piece.
“Osvaldo says that ‘Isaac’ is for klezmer clarinet and string quartet or orchestra,” Krakauer told the Forward in an interview prior to the performance. His advice to the clarinetists who come to him for help with the piece is simple: “Go out and play 100 Jewish weddings. Form a klezmer band. Do it with all your heart and soul.”
The second movement illustrates the wisdom of that counsel. It is essentially a funhouse version of the Odessa Bulgar, a klezmer standard that Golijov tricks out in dissonant harmonies and frequent metrical shifts. The composer also expertly controls the pacing of the movement, interspersing slow, dolorous passages with frenetic ones, and dragging the audience along on an emotional ride that runs the gamut from languor to panic.
Krakauer likened the overall effect to “looking at a klezmer tune in a cracked mirror,” one filled with “strange reflections and refractions of klezmer music.” Yet, in addition to keeping his head in surroundings that might have thrown a traditional klezmer musician for a loop, Krakauer also expertly dressed Golijov’s clarinet melody in the krekhtsn, or improvised melodic ornaments, without which klezmer does not sound like klezmer.
He did the same in the third movement — an instrumental version of an earlier work, “K’Vakarat,” written for string quartet and cantor — whose lush string passages highlighted the cinematic quality of Golijov’s writing. And he played the shofarlike patterns in the first movement — long, ululating tekiah and forceful shevarim — like someone who knows his way around a ram’s horn.
My wife, herself a classically trained musician who plays klezmer, noted that many of these Jewish devices would be considered “extended techniques” in classical circles. Whatever one chooses to call them, they serve to heighten the expressive power of the piece. And that, ironically, was the most lasting impression conveyed by Krakauer’s performance: What is most striking about “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” is not so much its Jewish content as its overall emotional impact.
In a clever bit of programming, the evening concluded with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major. In some ways, Mahler was the Golijov of his day, a composer who borrowed liberally from various sources, imbued his work with a powerful sense of narrative and had a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve. A Jew who converted to Catholicism in order to qualify for the directorship of the Vienna Opera — a transformation he famously summed up with the phrase “I have just changed my coat”— Mahler also embedded a series of klezmerlike passages in the third movement of the work, which the Philharmonic dispatched with élan. None of that other stuff here.
Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York City.