Probably the last thing you would expect out of a bunch of Germans from the old Nazi breeding grounds of Bavaria is an obsession with klezmer. But don't tell that to clarinetist Susanne Ortner. She's spent much of her life studying the Jewish folk music of Eastern Europe, which actually originated in Germany, in the 16th century.
In 2005, Pitt's Jewish Studies department brought Ortner over to play at a commemoration for Kristallnacht. Now, she's back for a longer stay, visiting schools in the Pittsburgh area with Holocaust survivor Fritz Ottenheimer and arranging the music for the Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh's production of Mazel. She's also recording a soundtrack for the Warhol's Deadly Medicine exhibit, holding a workshop for CAPA students, and even entertaining at a bat mitzvah.
Ortner, 33, is two generations removed from the horror of the Holocaust. But it's more than a vague sense of guilt that drew her to both klezmer music and the Jewish people -- it's a deep respect for a culture more and more young Germans are sharing. "When I first listened, I didn't even know it was Jewish music," she says. "I just thought that's how a clarinet should sound. The melody seemed familiar, close to my spiritual bent, so I thought I needed to play this music. Then I heard it was Jewish music, and the interest grew."
Eventually she formed her own all-German, non-Jewish klezmer quartet, Sing Your Soul, which in 2004 released the album Khosn, Kale, Mazl-Tov. This group is currently in Pittsburgh for four free concert appearances, the last of which is on Feb. 24. Together with the Hot Matzohs' Janice Coppola, Ortner has organized an eight-week klezmer class for all interested local musicians, which kicks off March 3 through Pitt's music department. "It's not just for clarinet," she says. "It can be violin, guitar, saxophone, accordion, pretty much anything but drums."
Those interested in hearing a German klezmer band won't encounter the New York edginess a group like the Klezmatics brings to the genre. In contrast, Sing Your Soul shows deference for the traditional material.
That careful reverence comes from the seriousness of Ortner's mission, which has included emotional moments, such as playing for a private gathering of several dozen Holocaust survivors at the Jewish Community Center. It's hard to fully grasp the depth of what that means for both parties, but Ortner appreciates any contribution she can make. "I'm thinking about my mentality, what it means to be German, as I play Jewish music and devote myself to it."
Sing Your Soul performs at 7:30 p.m. Sat., Feb. 24, at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill. To sign up for Ortner's class, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.