A Klezmer evening with Noah Bendix-Balgley

Noah Bendix-Balgley invites you to a Klezmer Late Night.

Noah Bendix-Balgley, first concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker, grew up with klezmer music. His Fidl-Fantazye, a klezmer concerto for violin and chamber orchestra, brings out all the magic of this musical style. It will be performed as part of a Late Night concert at the Philharmonie in April. Here, the composer provides an introduction to his work.

I grew up with klezmer music and it has had a major influence on my musical development. My father Erik Bendix is a dance teacher who specialises in Eastern European folk dances. He is an expert in Yiddish dance music, so as a child I often heard recordings of klezmer music and saw live bands at the many workshops and festivals where my father taught. I played my first klezmer tunes soon after I started violin lessons.

Later, I was lucky enough to learn from great klezmer musicians such as Michael Alpert and Alan Bern of Brave Old World and Alicia Svigals of The Klezmatics. To this day, klezmer music has been a wonderful balance for me alongside my work as a classical musician, because in klezmer music you are allowed to improvise and spontaneously embellish a melody. This freedom helps me to remain flexible and imaginative even within the more rigid structures of the classical repertoire. Klezmer music is very expressive and its emotional spectrum ranges from deeply sad improvisations to the infectious verve of fast dance songs.

The idea of a klezmer violin concerto had been in my mind for some time because I was looking for a virtuoso piece with an orchestra in the klezmer style. Originally, I wanted to commission it from another composer, but my father, Manfred Honeck and Michael Alpert suggested that I write it myself. I am very grateful to them for their encouragement.

What emerged in the end was a virtuoso fantasy for violin and orchestra. My thanks go to the wonderful composer Samuel Adler, who agreed to orchestrate the piece for me and to expand the violin and piano parts I composed into a complete score.

When I embarked on the composition, I first asked myself whether I wanted to use traditional klezmer melodies or compose my own. I decided on the latter, but wanted to write in the style of the traditional klezmer music I have become familiar with over the years.

Der junge Noah Bendix Balgley und die Klezmer-Geigerin Alicia Svigals
(Photo: privat)

The piece consists of three movements that follow each other without a break. Each movement is a medley of different dances. After a brief orchestral introduction, the solo violin enters with a simple, unaccompanied Khosidl melody, a slow step dance in the old Hasidic style. The violin then presents the melody in duets with various other instruments with virtuoso flourishes. This is followed by the first of three Doină sections in this piece – a Romanian-style improvisation over suspended chords – each acting as a transition.

The melody of the next section uses my translation of the name Samuel into tones or tone syllables of (German) solmisation: Es, A, E (Mi), C (Ut), E, A (La) [E flat, A, E, C, E, A]. My middle name is Samuel, after my great-grandfather Samuel Leventhal, who was also a violinist. Like me, he went to Germany to study the violin, and after graduating he played in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Later he was concertmaster of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

Thanks to this connection and the fortunate circumstance that Samuel Adler orchestrated the work, a musical version of their first names seemed to me a nice tribute to the two men. It appears throughout the work in various forms. Sam's Syrtos at the end of the first movement is a dance in offbeat 7/8 time, it refers to the Syrtos music of the Greek islands, which found its way into klezmer music under the name Terkisher (“in Turkish style”), since Greece was under Ottoman rule a long time ago.

The second movement begins with another Doină, including a duet with the principal viola. This develops into a slow Nigun or Lid, a song without words, which gradually turns into a Hora, a slow dance in triple time. Here I quote some fragments from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Gustav Mahler used klezmer melodies and elements in many of his works, the most famous example probably being the third movement of his First Symphony. Behind my Mahler quotes was the question: what if the classical melodies in his Fifth Symphony had been inspired by Klezmer music? How would these melodies have sounded? So, in the second movement of the Fantazye, I have interwoven a little Mahler in a Hora and even more Mahler in my version of a Freylekhs.

The third movement is an extended medley of fast melodies, in which the full orchestra and smaller ensembles alternate. Throughout the movement, the melodies move back and forth between the solo violin and individual members of the orchestra. At the end, the full orchestra plays again, bringing the work to a fast-paced conclusion.

Noah Bendix-Balgley

More about