• Ilona Oltuski

David Krakauer: In the Footsteps of the Zimro Ensemble

The article was published on Classical Post on November 8th, 2019

David Krakauer and musicians from The Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival performed at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on Monday, November 4, 2019.



Presented by The Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival (PJMF), clarinetist David Krakauer was featured in the concert "In the Footsteps of the Zimro Ensemble" marking the centenary of the virtuoso Zimro Ensemble’s landmark 1919 concert at Carnegie Hall. There, music inspired by Jewish tradition was premiered and projected onto the classical concert stage.

The Zimro was one of a number of early-20th-century initiatives toward a distinctive Jewish culture in Palestine, such as the Bezalel movement for arts and crafts in the time of Theodor Herzl. Eminent Russian clarinetist Simeon Bellison founded the Zimro, having been sent by the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music to collect funds to establish a “temple of art” in the Jewish homeland during the heyday of the Zionist movement. Zimro’s role in this (alas unfulfilled) mission is suggested by its name, a mash-up of klezmer and the root of the Hebrew word for singing.


In rediscovering its Jewish national roots a century ago, the St. Petersburg Society, led by composer and critic Joel Engel, meticulously transcribed, recorded, and then set for ensemble performances Jewish art music built upon Eastern European Jewish folk songs. Circulating the work of the composers of that initiative, the ensemble’s perilous tour from post-tsarist Russia to the Far East, and finally through America, introduced musical idioms related to its musical heritage as part of a search for a national Jewish identity. And while the Zimro did not achieve its immediate goal, its planting of Jewish musical roots in America remains its testimonial.

In a fascinating and animated survey of this music’s historical roots, Aron Zelkowicz, founder and director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival and the ensemble’s cellist, presented a program geared to open minds ready to hear these historic compositions, along with newly added works in the genre, “with new ears.”

“We use some of the repertoire from the festival and new repertoire we like to discover, while making a point to explore the originals, which at the time made such a huge impression on its audiences, but got largely omitted from the concert stage today; many are unaware the Zimro had even existed,” Zelkowicz explains.

Commanding clarinetist David Krakauer has with great commitment and skill dedicated his career to innovating in the klezmer tradition, keeping this music alive in a jazz-inspired vein. In the PJMF concert he projected as much deeply personal engagement as virtuosic delivery.

Krakauer pointed out his personal relationship to the program: “The Zimro’s clarinetist and composer Simeon Bellinson, who went on to become the New York Philharmonic’s first clarinetist, had also been the teacher of my own teacher, who handed me down an original collection of Jewish folk music,” he told the audience.


This inspiration became clear in the concert's encore, Krakauer's jazz-infused klezmer arrangement of a Yiddish Nigun, which he describes as a version of the popular “Freilich” (happy) song. Known for incorporating unorthodox techniques, the Grammy nominee was fascinating to watch. He often switched mouthpieces, using “rounder ones for classical passages, which make for a less raw delivery,” as he explained to me. He has mastered a circular breathing technique, taking in and releasing air through the nose, which enables him to sustain long passages without stopping for breath.

Performing in various formations, the ensemble was especially convincing in the contemporary original compositions and arrangements, while paying ample tribute to its nostalgic foundations. The string section was composed of frequent Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival performers – violinists Nurit Pacht and Kelly Hall-Tomkins, violist Melissa Reardon, and cellist Aron Zelkowicz. They gave an exacting performance of the program’s often challenging open structures and rhythmic and melodic constellations.

Pacht, a prize-winning soloist and collaborator, showed her versatility in both the historic and the contemporary works. With a master's degree from Juilliard’s Historical Performance program, she is an avid interpreter of the baroque repertoire and has collaborated with William Christie, Jordi Savall, Christopher Hogwood, and Monica Huggett.

A longtime member of the Enso String Quartet and the ECCO (East Coast Chamber Orchestra), violist Melissa Reardon has been a guest performer with quartets including the Miami, Miro, Daedalus, and Borromeo, and with members of the Guarneri, Mendelssohn, Brentano, St. Lawrence, and Shanghai Quartets.


Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins has earned critical acclaim from The New York Times as a “versatile violinist, who makes the music come alive.” She won audiences' affection during her 13 months as the violin soloist for the popular Bartlett Sher Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. With her recording project The Fiddler: Expanding Tradition, which commissions original Fiddler-inspired new works, she continues her engagement with these expressive possibilities: “They become a particularly important vehicle to elevate the voice of a marginalized people,” she explains, which perfectly resonates with her participation in this program. Indeed many of her current projects, like Music Kitchen, her initiative for the homeless, soon to receive a concert production at Carnegie Hall, focus on musical activism against the resurgence of hatred by extremist voices.

With an intense rhythmic sense, South African pianist Kathleen Tagg provided – together with Krakauer’s virtuosity – the ensemble's main directive. The Krakauer/Tagg team's multi-faceted international career is exemplified by their project Breath and Hammer, a continuously developing exploration of both their instruments.

For the profundity of the program and all of its fascinating elements, a huge credit goes to Zelkowicz, who proved his directorial talent perhaps a little more than his chops on the cello, but was amply able to sustain its historic as well as its artistic merit. He explained that the program was conceived with a dual emphasis on examining the uniqueness of this part of Jewish culture, while at the same time hoping to promote more societal openness and tolerance. “We can only hope for people to listen to each other, with more openness, acceptance and empathy,” he says.


Zelkowicz intentionally planned the first half of the concert – with small allowances – to be almost identical to the original Zimro performance, featuring works by composers from the St. Petersburg collective: Alexander Krein, I. Kaplan, Leo Zeitlin, Solomon Rosowsky, and Joachim Stutschewsky. With Stutschewsky in particular, as the program notes relate, the journey of the “Wandering Jew” came full circle. Born of the shtetl, raised by European intelligentsia, and settling in the Jewish homeland, the composer was active as musician, educator, and Israeli citizen until his death in 1982.

An interesting fact about these works is that they were geared to prominently feature different instrumental soloists. After all, Zimro’s musicians were virtuoso performers.

Works by these composers, the so-called "Russian Jewish classics," were also championed by the recent release of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival’s five-volume album series, which includes Zelkowicz’s previous collaboration with Krakauer.


Closing the program’s historic portion were two dynamic selections by New York composer, arranger, and violist Ljova (Lev Zhurbin). Commissioned by clarinetist Alex Fierstein, these works set the tone for the program’s second part, which consisted of music by several living composers. Jan Radzynski’s Three Hebrew Melodies for piano quintet and David Schiff’s Divertimento from Gimpel the Fool were paired with Sergej Prokofiev’s well-known Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34 for the full ensemble. Commissioned from the famed composer by the Zimro after its Carnegie Hall performance – Prokofiev was in New York at the time – the piece, finished in just one day, was said to have been inspired by the Zimro’s performance. The Zimro went on to feature it prominently in some of the group's subsequent US performances.

The evocation of the Zimro concert and its music’s role in Jewish identity gave rise to thoughts – though the topic wasn't mentioned – of recent grief over the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Zelkowicz delivered poignant commentary throughout the program, uniting its diverse musical choices and elevating the whole into a spirited message: In the face of the current political climate's diverging forces, and amid the rise of discrimination and hate crime, it was a plea for solidarity and all-inclusiveness.




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