Kulturfest brands itself as the “first international festival of Jewish performing arts,” and on the festival’s first day, Sunday, it lived up to its billing with a grand opening concert featuring dozens of artists representing at least five continents and a panoply of musical styles.
The event was held at Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, and if you’ve never seen a concert there, don’t feel the need to rectify the omission, because it’s actually a shopping mall atrium. Nevertheless, every seat was occupied, every inch of staircase was taken up by concertgoers, and the rest were left standing on the sidelines or hanging over the railings of the balcony level of retail stores. It made for an odd juxtaposition, and not the best-sounding show, but it was also a testimony to the thirst for this kind of entertainment – call it a retail-music extravaganza.
Renowned Yiddish-American singer-actress Eleanor Reissa served ably as master of ceremonies for the evening, which given the number of set changes, with each artist doing one song in a kind of all-festival variety show, ran remarkably smoothly. The Grammy Award-winning klezmer band the Klezmatics functioned as the house band for the evening, showcasing their own musical chops and versatility in the process.
Highlights of the evening included singer-actress Joanne Borts’s tribute to the Barry Sisters, stars of the Yiddish-swing era of the mid-20th century. Turning on a musical dime, Josh Dolgin aka Socalled, from Montreal, did one of his signature klezmer-rap tunes, “These Are the Good Old Day.” Dolgin brings the cultural ethos, knowledge, and entertainment value of the old-time Catskills to the stage, rejiggered for the 21st century, and it’s quite easy to imagine that had the Catskills scene lasted this long, it would very much look and sound like Socalled.
In their colorful, outlandish costumes and infused with the punk energy of contemporary Tokyo, Japanese klezmer outfit Jinta-la-Mvta brought the house down with its upbeat style of klezmer (you can catch them in their own show tonight at Joe’s Pub at 9pm). Backed by the Klezmatics, the duo of Merlin and Polina Shepherd – both from England, he originally from Wales, she from the far eastern reaches of the former Soviet Union – cast a spell on the crowd with their soulful virtuosity, Merlin coming across as the Jimmy Page of klezmer clarinet, and Polina as the Aretha Franklin of Yiddish song. (They perform at Joe’s Pub on Thursday at 7pm.)
The concert – functioning as a sampler or smorgasbord of all the musical artists who will be performing in the festival through next Sunday – included the obligatory rendition of “Rumenye”; a nod to the tradition historically embodied by Paul Robeson of African-Americans singing Yiddish through a lens of spirituals, here delivered by Elmore James; and a set-closing appearance by pop legend Neil Sedaka, who accompanied himself solo on the Steinway Grand with a poignant rendition of “My Yidishe Mame.”
Earlier in the day, the Argentine duo of César Lerner and Marcelo Moguilevsky demonstrated to the audience at the Museum of Jewish Heritage that the klezmer revival is not only a North American and European phenomenon. The musical partners of 30 years have taken a similar approach to modern groups like the Klezmatics, rebooting the Yiddish music of their ancestors and performing it with the vocabulary and accent of their territory, which in this case includes the tango of Astor Piazzolla, avant-garde jazz, and Andean folk music. They don’t play for the sake of nostalgia, but for contemporary expression, and while Moguilevsky would render a familiar nign on a native pipe or whistle, Lerner would contextualize the number with orchestral blankets of sound on accordion or jagged counterpoint on keyboards. They left at least one listener spellbound.
Seth Rogovoy is the author of The Essential Klezmer. To learn more about Kulturfest, visit http://kulturfestnyc.org.