Klezmer’s ‘Woody Guthrie’ Celebrated


The late jazz writer Gene Lees frequently remarked that jazz musicians tended to speak the way they played.

The same seems to have been true of German Goldenshteyn, the great klezmer clarinetist and a man who was a veritable human archive of the rich musical heritage of Bessarabia. Goldenshteyn, who died in 2006, was a Yiddish speaker whose inflections had a lilting, melodic rise and fall and a rhythmic precision not unlike his solos.

You can get a feel for his work on July 25, when the band he inspired, the German Goldenshteyn Memorial Orchestra plays an afternoon concert drawn from his vast repertoire.

Alex Kontorovich, the clarinetist for the orchestra who produced a CD of Goldenshteyn’s music distributed by Living Traditions and served frequently as Goldenshteyn’s translator at KlezKamp recalls that when Goldenshteyn taught "it was always about phrasing."

"When he played there was a story," he says. "With him every time he played something you heard the words of what he was saying. He had a wide range of emotion."

He also had a dazzling rich repertoire, one that Henry Sapoznik, producer of NPR’s "Yiddish Radio Project," has characterized as "incredibly varied and deeply textured."

Kontorovich concurs, "He was playing these amazing tunes we’d never heard of."

In no small part the source of Goldenshteyn’s catalog of tunes was the fact that Bessarabia was a crossroads that in the course of the 20th century belonged to Russia, Romania and, today, Moldova and Ukraine. As his obituary in the New York Times explained, "In the Dniester Valley, a web of different peoples converged – Balkan, East Slavic, Romanian, Ottoman, Jewish and Gypsy. It was a border culture, bearing the hallmarks of all these traditions. These influences fed the music of Mr. Goldenshteyn and his fellow klezmorim."

Working with many different musicians on the Old World simcha circuit of the time and playing in pit bands for Yiddish theater, Goldenshteyn would hear an ever-changing kaleidoscope of tunes. And he began writing them down.

Not that Goldenshteyn fancied himself an ethnomusicologist doing field research. No, he was a working musician who wouldn’t trust his livelihood to the vagaries of human memory.

"He was the librarian for the band he played with," Kontorovich says.

Eventually Goldenshteyn had over a thousand tunes, Kontorovich says, in hand-written fake books (i.e., lead sheets for working musicians with just the melody and chord progressions). And when he came to the United States in 1994, the books came with him, the foundation of a whole new klezmer repertoire at a time when the music most needed fresh melodic blood.

It was a transfusion from a man who also brought a warm personal touch to the process.

"He was just a gentle soul," Kontorovich says. "There’s a lot of ‘knife fights over nickels’ in the klezmer community and he had this wonderful way of being friends with everybody. Everybody loved him."

Goldenshteyn and three siblings were orphaned by the Nazis, and his own survival was a near-miracle.

"He shouldn’t have survived past [age] 7," Kontorovich says. "He and his siblings were starving and freezing and yet they lived, so every day was a gift to him."

A gift, one might add, that he repaid generously with his music.

"You felt it in his playing, in his presence, in his whole being, that he was a bridge to – a repository of – this entire culture," Michael Alpert, who had worked closely with the clarinetist, told the New York Times. "He’s the closest thing that the klezmer revival has had to a Woody Guthrie or a Leadbelly."

So it was only natural that a band organized to carry on his legacy should bear his name.

As Kontorovich says in classic New York Jewish cadences, "Who else’s name should it have? It’s his repertoire. It should be nobody else’s name."

The German Goldenshteyn Memorial Orchestra will be performing as part of the KlezKamp Road Show, Sunday, July 25, 12-4 p.m. at JASA Scheuer House, 161 Corbin Place (at the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue), Brooklyn. For information call (718) 646-4100 or (212) 532-8202.