Changing the Tune, Klezmatics Settle A Violinist’s Sex-Discrimination Suit

By Jon Kalish

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
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The Klezmatics have settled a sex-discrimination lawsuit filed by a former member of the popular klezmer band, the Forward has learned.

Fiddler Alicia Svigals, 40, was fired last year for missing out-of-town performances during her pregnancy and after the birth of her son.

Though Svigals declined to disclose the amount of the settlement, she did say that it “covers what I would have made last year and this coming year.” One band member said the sum was tens of thousands of dollars.

Another member told the Forward, “It was expensive, but it was worth it. Now we can move on with our lives.” Svigals and the band have agreed not to sue each other in the future over their past relationship.

Svigals was a co-founder of the group, which debuted in 1985. She played with what was described in court papers as “the world’s best-known and most influential klezmer band” for 17 years before parting ways. The Klezmatics have recorded five albums and performed in such venues as Radio City Music Hall and Lincoln Center. They have grossed as much as $500,000 in a single year, according to Svigals’s legal complaint.

Svigals became pregnant in the fall of 2000 and gave birth in May 2001. Before firing Svigals in January 2002, the other Klezmatics suggested she take an unpaid leave of absence, since she was unable to make out-of-town performances. Svigals told the Forward that because the group had a policy allowing members to miss engagements as long as an approved substitution was made, she felt she should be able to continue as a paid bandmember playing local gigs, so she declined to take the leave of absence.

In a suit filed in New York State Supreme Court in August 2002, Svigals asserted that a 1996 agreement governing The Klezmatics’s partnership gave band members life tenure. The agreement was circulated via e-mail but never formally executed.

The band had unsuccessfully sought a gag order to prevent Svigals from speaking about the sex-discrimination suit.

“It is a sad day when self-styled ‘progressive’ artists would seek to gag a fellow musician from protecting her creative work and exercising her free-speech right,” Svigals’s attorney, Alan Effron, wrote in a legal memorandum responding to the band’s motion for the gag order.

Indeed, The Klezmatics have been known almost as much for their political causes — supporting such causes as gay rights and Palestinian independence and opposing capital punishment — as for their rock- and jazz-infused klezmer music. The group operated as a collective, making decisions democratically, often after hours of discussion and debate. When Svigals was fired, she was actually “voted out of the partnership” by the remaining members of the band; she was replaced by Lisa Gutkin.

“Having already damaged the reputation of the band and having already contributed to the spiraling of our career [by missing performances], we really did have to do something because otherwise the band would have gone in the toilet,” said Lorin Sklamberg, the band’s lead singer and accordion player. Losing the lawsuit could have been disastrous for the group because Svigals was seeking an injunction barring the band from performing, recording or otherwise marketing themselves as The Klezmatics.

“I don’t feel bad about how it all worked out,” Sklamberg said of the settlement. “It’s only money and the band will go on and hopefully we will be able to bring our career back up to snuff.”

The release of The Klezmatics’ new record “Rise Up!/Shteyt Oyf!” was delayed after Svigals’s lawyer sent letters about the litigation to the record company, Rounder Records. The album is now scheduled to be released on May 15. Sklamberg said the eight-month delay of the record’s release resulted in the group losing gigs for which having a new record was a prerequisite.

Now, The Klezmatics are busy again. In addition to their forthcoming album, which has a new tune about the September 11 terrorist attacks titled “I Ain’t Afraid,” the band is looking forward to a spring tour of Austria, Belgium and Germany, where they will collaborate with a full symphony orchestra.

In the time since she left The Klezmatics, Svigals wrote arrangements for an instrumental group that recorded Lubavitcher negunim and collaborated with novelist Thane Rosenbaum in a performance at the 92nd Street Y. She has her own wedding band and still performs with Mikveh, an all-female klezmer ensemble. Svigals says she is working on a solo show of spoken-word and musical pieces and is thinking about going back to school for an advanced degree in biology.

Svigals is no longer on speaking terms with anyone in the band.

“It’s very unfortunate that they couldn’t see their way through this because, artistically, I was a very big part of the band,” Svigals told the Forward. “As a composer, as a player, I really helped define the sound of that band and it’s going to be a different band now.”

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