With June comes the peak of Pittsburgh's music-festival season, including the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, founded by cellist Aron Zelkowicz in 2004. The PJMF varies from the basketful of other Jewish festivals around the country: Instead of focusing on Debbie Friedman-style folk-pop or the collegiate vibe of Matisyahu, its aim is more traditional.
"I wanted to give a platform to concert works that were inspired by Jewish musical traditions," says Zelkowicz, whose classical background stems from his education at the Eastman School of Music and SUNY Stonybrook, where's he's currently pursuing a doctorate in music. "Having a 40-piece orchestra comprised of the finest local musicians in the city, devoting their time and energy to Jewish music, is something you don't hear very often."
Zelkowicz's featured performers include the virtuoso quartet Brave Old World, returning a decade after previous Pittsburgh stops at the Three Rivers Arts Festival and Calliope, and a stint as musical directors for Itzhak Perlman's PBS special In the Fiddler's House. There's also acclaimed downtown New York clarinetist David Krakauer, as well as a bit of club-level levity, provided by the Pittsburgh/Cleveland ensemble Steel City Klezmorim.
Kicking things off is the amazing Song of the Lodz Ghetto, by Brave Old World. The intense song cycle weaves compositions collected by ethnologist Gila Flam from survivors of that Polish city's ghetto with original "New Jewish Music" by pianist/accordionist Alan Bern and violinist Michael Alpert. The group released the program in 2004, on respected European jazz label Winter and Winter, and has been touring with it since.
Lodz Ghetto, sung entirely in Yiddish, is a theatrical journey through the paths of memory, leaving out none of the anguish of the Holocaust while still offering a hopeful message. "To me, it seemed like an enormous but necessary challenge to present this material. We were not ghetto survivors, so what authority did we have to sing these songs?" says Bern, who makes his home in Berlin. " [But] I think everyone senses the honesty of what we're doing, and the music is convincing and powerful."
Equally versatile and accomplished is the distinctly Polish-surnamed David Krakauer. The frequent denizen of John Zorn's Tzadik label has carved a crossover niche for himself as a formidable clarinet champion, straddling the worlds of classical New Music, klezmer (his own band Klezmer Madness! and collabs with the Klezmatics), and the avant-jazz/improv scene that in the '80s stemmed from such bastions as the Knitting Factory.
Krakauer's latest CD, Bubbemeises: Lies My Grandma Told Me, is a beat-oriented project with Jewish rapper and Heeb magazine darling So-Called. But Krakauer appears here in the same capacity he did two years ago with Music on the Edge: interpreting Argentinean-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov's klezmer-inspired quintet, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony. "When [Kraukauer] plays," Zelkowicz enthuses, "he gets all those emotional squawks, laughs and sobs from the instrument."
Bringing a Yiddish flavor to an instrument known mainly for rock, jazz and blues is guitarist and local man-about-town Henry Shapiro, who joins such personalities as gypsy fiddler Steven Greenman and cymbalom player Alex Fedoriouk to comprise the mostly acoustic Steel City Klezmorim. And yes, you can clear away some tables at Club Café to get up and dance to hardcore horas and blasting bulgars, but please don't call it Jewish jazz. "There's not much relation to jazz that I can see," Shapiro says, "but klezmer has a very distinctive flavor you can instantly recognize."
But will non-Jews get it just as easily? Theology aside, Zelkowicz believes so. "You can't escape religious and cultural connections with a lot of music," he says. "Classical music would not exist as we know it today without the church. This is an accessible way to open your heart up to another culture which has a distinct history, rather than going to a synagogue where you don't know the language and the ritual, or going to a formal Catholic mass or a mosque."
"Anyone who attends all three concerts will have a kaleidoscopic experience ofthree very different interpretations of klezmer," he continues. "I think the music itself is a universal language."
Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival. Brave Old World (7:30 p.m. Tue., May 29, Katz Auditorium, Jewish Community Center, 5738 Darlington Road, Squirrel Hill). Steel City Klezmorim (7:30 p.m. Wed., May 30, Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side). David Krakauer (7:30 p.m. Mon., June 4, Levy Hall, Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Ave., Oakland). Each show $20 ($15 seniors/$10 students). 412-394-3353 or www.pjmf.net