Jewish composer’s 100-year-old music comes alive at Kennedy

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Alexander Fiterstein will appear in The Voice of the Clarinet in Jewish Classical Music at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 1.
Alexander Fiterstein will appear in The Voice of the Clarinet in Jewish Classical Music at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 1.

The clarinet speaks with a quintessentially Jewish voice. Played in the minor key its mellifluous presence has become an expected and necessary component of Eastern European klezmer music. A skilled player can make the reed instrument laugh, cry, whine, beseech, moan and kvell with equal abandon.

On Dec. 1, the locally based presenter and proponent of Jewish classical music, Pro Musica Hebraica, will feature clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein in a program of Jewish chamber music — The Voice of the Clarinet in Jewish Classical Music — that will also include violinists Erin Keefe and Arnaud Sussmann, violist Cindy Wu, cellist Nicholas Canellakis and pianist Timothy Lovelace. The concert opens Pro Musica Hebraica’s seventh season of bringing to the concert stage often lost or neglected Jewish classical music. The organization, founded by long-time Washington Post op-ed columnist Charles Krauthammer and his wife Robyn, is dedicated to presenting and preserving lost and neglected masterpiece of Jewish classical music.


Fiterstein discovered the clarinet as a youth growing up in Israel. Born in Belarus to parents who themselves were very musical, Fiterstein noted that his mother and father were both very well educated musically. His father conducted a community orchestra in Nazareth Ilit in northern Israel, where the family settled, and his mother was a ballet teacher. Music, art, and dance were an integral part of his upbringing.

He remembers piano lessons with a strict Russian teacher began at 5 and the opportunity to join a youth wind ensemble at 9 introduced him formally to the clarinet. On the first day, the band director either let the kids pick an instrument or suggested one. “I had no idea what I was going to pick but because of my age and because I was kind of average height, they suggested that I play either the clarinet or the flute,” he said. “I picked the clarinet.”

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Intensive study followed, as well as competitions and summer programs. A scholarship from the American Israel Cultural Foundation introduced him to a new world of classical music and Fiterstein eventually finished high school in the U.S. at Interlochen, the acclaimed Michigan-based arts conservatory. After that, a stint at Juilliard set him on course for a professional career. These days Fiterstein, who is based in Minneapolis, tours but also teaches at University of Minnesota.

Sunday’s program at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater draws from a rich archive of compositions reclaimed from Jewish composers of the early 20th century, which found its way to Israel. Known today as the Bellison Archive, it contains scores collected by that legendary Russian Jewish clarinetist. Bellison was also founder of the Moscow chamber ensemble Zimro Ensemble, created in 1918 to promote national Jewish music, and founded a conservatory in Jerusalem.


Many of the pieces in the archive draw from the distinctive sounds of popular klezmer and folk artists. On this weekend’s program, “Bobe-mayses” or “Grandmother’s tall tales” uses an arrangement by Bellison, and Fiterstein will also play another Bellison composition, “In the Field/Song of a Jewish Shepherd.” There are works by one-of-a-kind American Jewish klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras, including “Sirba” and “Zeydns tants” or “Grandfather’s dance.” There’s even a new work written in the style of classical klezmer: Ron Yedidia’s “World Dance” from “Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano” is a Fiterstein favorite, as much for what it says politically and socially as for what it says physically.

Fiterstein came across the archives, while preparing a Prokofiev’s 1919 “Overture on Hebrew Themes.” As a clarinetist, he realized he had uncovered a gold mine. Bellison gave his entire music collection to the Jerusalem Conservatory Archive. “A lot of these pieces are not published, but are just in manuscript form,” he said. “It’s a really fascinating collection of compositions.” While he noted that the clarinet repertory is extensive, although not as vast as what’s available for violin and piano, Fiterstein is always on the lookout for new works to challenge himself and introduce to the audience.

Fiterstein is excited to bring Samuel Gardner’s “Hebrew Fantasy” to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The Israeli-trained clarinetist pointed out that Gardner received a Pulitzer Prize and this work can stand on its own as a piece of chamber music. “It’s an extensive work with three movements,” he said. “It’s about 20 minutes long, and the material gets developed and pass around.”

Ultimately, drawing from klezmer influences and musical motifs, “Hebrew Fantasy” and others on the program are solidly classical. Each work is fully composed, leaving no room for improvisation. What distinguishes classical from klezmer is the length and the complex manner in which the material gets developed and passed around among the chamber players. “It becomes something more than the melodies,” Fiterstein said excitedly.

Alexander Fiterstein and Friends in The Voice of the Clarinet in Jewish Classical Music will be onstage Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater in the District. Tickets, at $38, are available by calling 202-467-4600 or visiting www.kennedy-center.org.

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