A Klezmer-ish night out? Why not – especially when the venue is one of the most beautiful buildings in our neighbourhood. Klezmer-ish are a group of four musicians whose day job is with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. They play klezmer, but at the same time (thus the -ish) explore a wide range of music created by immigrants from all sorts of places around the world – from Argentinean tango to gypsy jazz and Irish fiddle music. Last night they were performing in the dazzling Princes Road synagogue.
Klezmer-ish consist of Thomas Verity (clarinets, whistle), Rob Shepley (guitar, violin), Concettina Del Vecchio (piano accordion, violin), and Marcel Becker (double bass). They all play with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – Rob is sub-principal viola, while Marcel is leader of the double bass section. He says that, although they are inspired by the original tunes, they tailor them ‘to our own personal taste – all the music is arranged by us and for us.’
Concettina is a sub-principal violinist with the orchestra, but she started out, aged just three and a half, playing the piano accordion.
My parents are from Italy, and my earliest musical experience was listening to members of my family play Neapolitan folk songs from as early as I can remember. My grandfather was the village accordionist back in Italy and used to play at all the town weddings and parties. He was entirely self-taught and he has had a great influence on my musical life as it was because of him that I began to learn the accordion.
The group played two sets which explored various musical traditions from different parts of the world, but all connected by their origins among travelling people and immigrants fleeing persecution or seeking a better life who brought their musical traditions to new lands where they absorbed new influences which transformed the music. In the band, both Concettina and Marcel typify these movements: Concettina’s family left Italy to settle in the UK, while Marcel was born in Germany, spent five years of his childhood in France and moved to the UK 15 years ago.
They opened with a raft of klezmer tunes, born in the musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews from the shtetls of Eastern Europe and transformed by its encounter with jazz on arrival in New York. As Marcel explained, klezmer’s origins lie in dance tunes and instrumental pieces played at weddings and other celebrations. Carried by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants to the United States fleeing progroms in Eastern Europe from the 1880s, klezmer evolved as it met and assimilated elements of American jazz.
The fine musicianship of Klezmer-ish’s members was revealed in the genre’s characteristic sudden shifts from melancholy – emphasised by mournful passages led by clarinet and accordion – to the joyous, stomping swirl of a wild village dance. Weeping and laughing, sacred and profane – the secular music of klezmer was rooted in the devotional vocal music of the synagogue, in particular the expressive ‘sobbing’ style of cantorial singing.
The synagogue on Princes Road seemed an appropriate place to listen to these tunes. The Grade II listed building was completed in 1874. In the following two or three decades impoverished Jewish refugees from eastern Europe passed in waves through Liverpool, on their exodus to America. Some several thousand decided to settle in a city which already accommodated a burgeoning and successful Jewish community. Indeed, the synagogue on Princes Road is a testament to the wealth and social position of Liverpool’s nineteenth century Jewish magnates, a group with wealth and taste that included David Lewis, founder of Liverpool’s once-famous Lewis’s department store. The building cost £13,000 to build, a huge sum – over £100m in today’s money – entirely funded by members of the congregation.
A terrorist act, the assassination of Alexander in 1881, was falsely blamed on Jews, prompting a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in ‘the Pale’ area of Russia (now Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine). By the 1920s, nearly two million Jews had left the Pale, primarily for the United States. The pogroms led directly to the establishment of the Zionist movement when 36 Zionist delegates met in Katowice in 1884.
Liverpool historian Arnold Lewis explored the impact of immigation by Jews fleeing the pogroms in research that resulted in the documentary Chicken Soup and Scouse. Born in Liverpool in 1942, Lewis’s grand parents came to Liverpool from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s. His co-researcher on the film was Michael Swerdlow whose paternal great-grandparents settled in Liverpool with their children from Kiev in the early 1900s.
Speaking to the BBC, Lewis explained:
We interviewed one man who remembers when the trans-migrants came from Russia ready to go, they weren’t staying in Liverpool so they were put up in lodgings over night near the Oceanic Hotel and places like that by the shipping companies while they had to wait for the ship going off to the States. He recalls going down there when he was a young kid, and they would come and do street entertainment while they were waiting for the ship to take them to America, they would play the accordions which they managed to bring with them, and he used to delight in it and remembers very clearly the atmosphere that they produced during the very little time they spent in Liverpool, just in the two or three days before they were shipped on elsewhere.
Klezmer-ish gave us a sense of the distances travelled by Jews and klezmer music in their concert – from adaptations of traditional klezmer tunes such as ‘Dancing with the Rabbi’, to ones where the influence of American jazz was palpable, to the tune ‘Give Me A Lift to Tzfat’, another adaptation of a traditional tune from modern Israel.
The band opened the second set with several tango tunes composed by Astor Piazzolla. As Concettina explained in her introduction, the story of tango echoes that of klezmer: brought to Argentina by Italian immigrants and evolving into nuevo tango that incorporated elements from jazz and classical music.
Born in 1921, Piazzolla was the son of Italian immigrant parents. His paternal grandfather had arrived in Argentina at the end of the 19th century, a sailor and fisherman from Apulia, while his mother was the daughter of two Italian immigrants from Tuscany. For me, this was the highpoint of a great evening’s music.
From the nuevo tango of Piazzolla, the group moved on to perform three numbers of the gypsy jazz popularised by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Together the Belgian guitarist of Roma extraction and the French jazz violinist founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934 – once again fusing styles from different times and places. A particular highlight in this segment was Django Reinhardt’s ‘Blue Drag.’
The gypsy swing was followed by a couple of numbers arranged by guitarist Rob Shepley that evoked the music of Irish immigrants who settled in the States, bringing with them their traditional fiddle music. As Concettina observes in an interview on the band’s website, there is a common thread running through their repertoire:
They took their musical traditions with them and as much as they influenced the music scene wherever they settled, so was their music influenced by the cultures they encountered in their new-found homes. Klezmer music of Jewish immigrants, tangos by Piazzolla (who grew up in Argentina as a son of Italian immigrants) or the gypsy jazz of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt (the fantastic collaboration of a classically trained French/Italian musician with a self-taught gypsy guitarist) are all examples of amazing musical fusions and intercultural exchanges.
The concert ended with a rousing traditional klezmer number, the audience driving the beat on with fervent hand-claps.
The concert over, we emerged onto Princes Avenue; opposite stood the Greek Orthodox church, while St Margaret’s CofE was just next door, and down the road a little way the ruins of the Welsh Presbyterian church. We made our way home past the mosque, just around the corner, and the Methodist centre: all of these buildings the physical evidence of the immigrant communities that have enriched the weft and warp of the human fabric this city.