K’li zemer was commissioned by the celebrated clarinetist and neo-klezmer exponent Giora Feidman, but premiered in 1988 by Peter Alexander, with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, conducted by Leon Botstein.
The term k’li zemer is translated literally from the Hebrew as “instrument of song.” But the contraction of the two words centuries ago became the Yiddish klezmer although it came to connote wedding band and street band players rather than classical concert performers. The clarinet was one of the chief virtuoso solo instruments in many klezmer bands in 19th- and 20th-century eastern Europe, although it was probably preceded in its dominant role by the violin and, in early bands, even by the flute. Its virtual hegemony as the soloistic instrument associated with so-called klezmer music is probably more a phenomenon of the American experience, beginning with the early eastern European immigrant era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And in the pantheon of famous klezmer band musicians, the roster of renowned clarinet virtuosos looms large, with such accomplished artists as Naftule Brandwein, Dave Tarras, and Shloimeke Beckerman.
Discussing this concerto, Starer explained, “While all the thematic ideas in K’li zemer are my own, they do lean toward the melodies of eastern European Jewish music, with which I have been familiar since my childhood in Vienna and my youth in Jerusalem; the music played at weddings and similar occasions [among eastern European Jews] by small groups of musicians, whose favorite instruments were [often] the violin and clarinet.”
K’li zemer is in four movements, with no pause between the last two. Their descriptive titles indicate corresponding moods. T’fillot (Prayers) begins with solo clarinet in passages of deep meditative character, almost trancelike, as if worldly thoughts and concerns have been set aside during communication with God. Starer described the entrance of the high strings as reflective of a congregation in a synagogue service joining the cantor following his solo recitative. The music gradually increases in intensity, approaching the idealized ecstatic state especially embraced by Hassidim. When the full orchestra enters, led by brass and percussion, it is as if the prayer experience has reached its climax. Gradually the mood winds down to its conclusion, once again in its opening moods.
A dance tune opens the second movement, Rikkudim (Dances), which recurs in the manner of classical rondo form. There is an interesting contrast between old and new, traditional and modern, in Starer’s inclusion of a contemporary rhythm (10/8) for one of the dance sections, while in another a typical 19th-century eastern European Jewish wedding or “klezmer” sound is recalled when the clarinet is accompanied by bass and drum alone.
The third movement, Manginot (Melodies), features a long, spun-out melody in the clarinet’s soulful low register. Its natural softness is reminiscent of a folk lullaby, which later in the movement is taken over by the English horn, with the clarinet now in contrapuntal figures against it to give the improvisational character of authentic klezmer bands. The finale, Hakdashot (Dedications)—marked allegro moderato—opens with a timpani solo and a dialogue between solo clarinet and full orchestra.
Starer wrote that when he was a student at Tanglewood many years before writing this concerto, Darius Milhaud had advised him always to “invent his own folk melodies.” “I listened to him,” Starer later wrote with reference to this piece, “and have followed his advice.” Yet the overall feeling and character of traditional eastern European melos prevails throughout.
Just prior to the conclusion of the final movement, there is a brief echo of the opening passage of the first, recalling the “prayer” theme.
Performers: Barcelona Symphony-National Orchestra of Catalonia, Barcelona Symphony/National Orchestra Of Catalonia; David Krakauer, Clarinet; Gerard Schwarz, Conductor
Publisher: MMB Music Inc